Belarusian authorities stripped accreditation from at least 17 journalists from major foreign news organizations who have been covering the country’s turmoil following the disputed presidential election.
The move, taken on August 29 by a commission of the national Security Council, was a major escalation by President Alexander Lukashenko’s government as it continues to face popular protest and international condemnation for the August 9 election, and for the harsh police crackdown on opposition protesters.
The journalists targeted include employees of major Western news organizations including RFE/RL, the BBC, the Associated Press, Reuters, Agence-France Presse, Germany’s ARD television, Deutsche Welle, and Radio France. Without accreditations, journalists are not legally permitted to gather news within the country.
No reason for the government’s decision was provided.
It was not immediately clear if journalists from Russian state-run and state-funded news media, such as the TASS news agency, Vesti TV, or the RT channel, faced a similar loss of accreditation.
'Desperate, ominous move'
At least 17 journalists had their accreditations canceled, the Belarus Association of Journalists reported.
"Stripping our journalists of accreditation on grounds of 'extremism' is a desperate and ominous move by an authoritarian government to stifle the independent media and ruthlessly control the availability of credible information inside Belarus,” acting RFE/RL President Daisy Sindelar said in a statement. "It's a violation of international standards and an assault on the Belarusian people who rely on us."
Four journalists from RFE/RL’s Belarus Service were hit by the move, and one from Current Time, the Russian-language TV network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA.
Others include two from the BBC, two from AP, two from AFP, two from ARD, and two from Reuters.
Many of those affected are Belarusian citizens.
Reuters journalist Tatyana Melnichuk told RFE/RL that she had been informed that her accreditation had been revoked via a telephone call from the Foreign Ministry.
"They told us that our accreditation, like the accreditations of the BBC journalists, had been revoked and that we had to return them today or on Monday," Melnichuk said. "They didn’t give any reason."
US calls for 'restraint'
The U.S. Embassy in Minsk called on Belarusian authorities to "demonstrate restraint."
"We stand by our long-term commitment to support Belarus’ sovereignty and territorial integrity, as well as the aspirations of the Belarusian people to choose their leaders and to choose their own path, free from external intervention," the statement said.
Two days earlier, around 50 journalists were detained while covering postelection protests in Minsk; the group included employees from Belarusian outlets such as TUT.BY, BelaPAN, and Belsat.
In all, more than 260 people were detained during at the time, according to the human rights center Vyasna.
The Belarusian Association of Journalists said most of the journalists detained at the time were released after police checked their documents.
Four journalists who refused to hand over their smartphones for police to check were charged with participating in an unauthorized protest, the association said. A Swedish journalist will also be deported, it added.
The detentions came after nearly three weeks of protests against the official results of the election, which gave Lukashenko a landslide victory.
Demonstrators and opposition leaders are contesting those results, charging that the vote was rigged in Lukashenko's favor.
During their detention on August 27, RFE/RL journalists were searched by police, who appeared to be looking for recording equipment. Their laptops and cameras were seized, and they were ordered to open the photo galleries and other information on their mobile phones. In at least one case, a journalist was told to delete images of riot police.
One RFE/RL photographer was threatened with misdemeanor charges if he refused to comply with police orders.
Meanwhile, many websites of news organizations have seen curtailed access within Belarus amid reports that of sporadic Internet access.
Several bloggers also remain in prison, including a consultant for RFE/RL's Belarus Service on digital strategy. His detention in Zhodzina prison outside of Minsk has been extended to October 25.
Protesters, who are planning another demonstration in Minsk on August 30, have been largely defiant despite a brutal police crackdown, and widespread evidence of beatings and torture of detained protesters.
The leading opposition candidate, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, told the European Parliament this week that at least six people have been killed in the crackdown and dozens of protesters have gone missing after being detained by authorities.
With reporting by Current Time.