Two journalists detained in Minsk on charges that they took part in opposition rallies were given prison sentences on Thursday, becoming the first reporters convicted of organizing protests despite pleas from rights groups.
Katerina Bakhvalova, a presenter for Warsaw-based Belsat TV, and Daria Chultsova, a camerawoman for the network, were sentenced to two years behind bars after a three-day trial. They had been found guilty of “organization and preparation of actions that grossly violate public order, or active participation in them.”
Belsat, which is bankrolled by the government of neighboring Poland, claims the pair were arrested after livestreaming a demonstration on Minsk’s Peremen Square (Square of Changes). The protests followed an outcry when a resident of the capital, Roman Bondarenko, was allegedly beaten to death. The 31-year-old man was picked up by police outside his home on the plaza. Belarusian authorities have since opened a criminal investigation into the officers’ conduct.
According to Bakhvalova’s husband, who also works for the channel, the charges are being used to stifle reporting. “It’s a completely absurd situation,” he said. “She practically spent the entire protest in that apartment [where they had been filming], she didn’t leave there, she couldn’t take part or coordinate. The very fact that she ran a live broadcast is proof.”
The International Federation of Journalists, which lobbies for the rights of reporters, has helped co-ordinate calls for the release of the pair, asking members to “mobilize against the increasing repression of journalists in Belarus.”
The Eastern European nation has been rocked by waves of mass demonstrations since August of last year, when veteran leader Alexander Lukashenko declared victory in the presidential election. The opposition, and many international observers, say the vote was rigged, and tens of thousands have since taken to the streets to demand a new election. Lukashenko, however, has insisted that those forming the crowds are Western-backed puppets.
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