The recent move to label Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ) an ‘extremist organisation’ comes amidst an intensified crackdown on civil society that President Lukashenko is using to strengthen his autocratic power. ARTICLE 19 strongly denounces this blatant attack on free speech and fundamental rights. This unjustified decision presents severe repercussions – including criminal ones – for individuals affiliated with the leading press association in the country, and further quashes civil society.
BAJ is the first non-governmental association (NGO) to have been labelled an ‘extremist organisation’ by the Belarusian secret services. The decision, dated 28 February, was made public on 7 March 2023. The decision states that a group of BAJ members, including BAJ president Andrey Bastunets and vice-president Barys Haretski, as well as six other BAJ members, have been involved in extremist activities. According to the Belarusian Criminal Code, any individual who has participated in activities led by an extremist-labelled entity may face prison time.
The Belarusian Association of Journalists, the leading journalism group and the laureate of the UNESCO World Press Freedom Prize, has been forced to operate in exile since the Supreme Court ruled to liquidate the organisation in August 2021. The authorities have not clarified what part of BAJ’s mandate, which largely concentrates on peer support, was found to be extremist.
‘Lukashenko has repeatedly shown that he has no intention to allow a democratic transition in Belarus. He and his political camp will not stop at anything in their pursuit to completely dismantle civil society and crush freedom of expression. As an international community, we have a duty to support Belarusians and advocate for their fundamental rights to be respected,’ says Joanna Szymańska, Senior Programme Officer at ARTICLE 19.
Though overshadowed by Russia’s ongoing aggression against Ukraine, the situation for human rights in Belarus remains suffocating and dire. Lukashenko continues to weaponise shameful repressive practices against human rights defenders, journalists and any independent critical voices. This sweeping crackdown has been exacerbated by the recent draconian verdict in a trial against Viasna leaders, which has been described by human rights advocates as a ‘travesty of justice’.
ARTICLE 19 stands in solidarity with courageous members of the BAJ and salutes their tireless work to defend free speech and quality, reliable journalism.