Belarus Imprisonment of journalists for covering peaceful protests violates international law

A journalist addresses the court on the third day of her trial, from inside a cage. Next to her is a colleague who is her cameraman when working in the field and who faces an equally harsh prison sentence if convicted. “I want to devote my energy exclusively to creating something in Belarus … where there will be no room for political repression, where people will not be persecuted for honest journalism, for the truth,” said the journalist. . “I am not asking but demanding an acquittal … Thank you.” Observers in the courtroom, including her family, burst into applause.

The journalist is Ekaterina Andreeva (surname, Bakhvalova). She is a 27-year-old correspondent for Belsat TV, one of the only independent news outlets operating in Belarus, where defendants can be caged during their proceedings – too much common practice who scoffs advice of the United Nations Human Rights Committee. This week, the Clooney Justice Foundation (CFJ), where I work as a fellow, filed a case brief friend urging the Minsk City Court to overturn the convictions of Andreeva and her colleague, Daria Chultsova, on the grounds that their rights have been violated under international law. How disproportionate were their convictions, just for covering up a protest? The day after Andreeva’s final statement in February, they were sentenced to two years in prison.

To be clear, their beliefs come as no surprise. Belarus has caught the world’s attention with massive and persistent protests since August 2020, when hundreds of thousands of Belarusians took to the streets to challenge the disputed results of a presidential election which ostensibly gave Alexander Lukashenko a victory of 80.23 percent of the vote. Journalists covering the events were the target of arrests, criminal proceedings and police brutality. Belsat TV’s own correspondents arrested 162 times in 2020, and just last week, two were arrested for filming in the northern town of Dokshytsy. Some journalists have noted the vests they wear during reports that openly declare them to be “press” feel “like a target on their back”.

The repression of the Lukashenko government seems to be on the increase. A new law under consideration by the Belarusian parliament, which has long been effectively under the control of the president, could empower the police to to forbid any film or photograph during events, essentially making the reporting – and the live broadcasting that has been such a powerful element – illegal. Real-time windows on protests are more vital than ever for mass movements: think citizen journalists like Joseph Blake, who Live broadcast of the 2020 Black Lives Matter events to thousands in Portland, Oregon, or live videos of pro-democracy protests on TV screens in bars and restaurants in Hong Kong. A common refrain on Twitter captures this reality: “The revolution will not be televised, but it will be broadcast live. “

Live reporting on the events

For Andreeva, live reporting of protests in Belarus had become the new normal. Since the summer of 2020, she worked as a hot spot reporter, attending demonstrations despite the Belarusian Foreign Ministry’s refusal of her accreditation requests. (Because her employer, Belsat TV, is based in Poland, she needs permission to work as a “foreign” reporter. Andreeva argues that the ministry’s refusal to provide her with accreditation is an “act of censorship. ‘State.’ Human Rights Committee, ‘general public registration or licensing systems for journalists’ are incompatible with the right to freedom of expression.

Andreeva and Chultsova were arrested while on mission in November 2020. They were sent to cover a November 15 demonstration in Minsk’s “Change Square” which was organized in response to the murder of a few man. days before: The man had been beaten to death in the square by pro-government assailants when he confronted them for removing “white-red-white” ribbons – colors symbolizing Belarusian independence and the anti-Lukashenko movement – from a fence. Andreeva and Chultsova set up their camera in a neighboring apartment.

At the start of the demonstration, Andreeva share what they could see, live on Belsat TV: candles, people stretched out arm in arm in a chain of solidarity, a “sea” of flowers. At one point, Andreeva described “courageous” men and women, “in the face of these азікаў(Security forces) unarmed. To another, she said, “I don’t know how you are on the other side of the screen, but… [it’s] just incredibly impressive – the courage of the people… the protest, even after all this violence, has not ceased to be peaceful. She said police used flash grenades, rounded up protesters and used drones to monitor surrounding apartments.

After their broadcast, Andreeva and Chultsova were arrested in the apartment where they were filming. They were subsequently charged with violating Belarusian penal code. Authorities alleged that journalists used their program to “organize” the protest, which “seriously violates[d] public order ”by disrupting traffic, and also accused them of“ participating[ing]”in the demonstration. This despite the fact that the evidence presented at the trial indicated that they were only reporting what they saw in the streets below.

Amicus memory

Andreeva and Chultsova were found guilty after a four-day trial and sentenced to two years in prison. The American Bar Association’s Center for Human Rights monitored proceedings as part of the CFJ’s TrialWatch initiative, which monitors criminal proceedings around the world, assesses their fairness, and defends those unfairly detained.

In this case, the court ruled that the defendants had encouraged the demonstrators by “giving[ing] a positive evaluation “of the demonstrations, revealed” measures taken by the police “by describing the actions of the agents; and motivated people to come to the protest site to “block law enforcement equipment” by describing cars blocking police. But an independent expert’s review of the footage reveals that Andreeva was only reporting and Chultsova was only filming what they saw. Under international law, they should not have been arrested, let alone sentenced criminally.

“A protest is not a criminal conspiracy, and reporting on it does not turn journalists into ringleaders,” said Beth Van Schaack, Leah Kaplan visiting professor of human rights at Stanford Law School and TrialWatch expert who will assess the procedure in a future report. , creating an objective and public record of trial fairness and legitimacy for use in subsequent advocacy. (Van Schaack is a Just security editor-in-chief) “Belarus must respect the right of journalists to cover events of public importance and stop locking them up just for doing their job.”

In addition to highlighting violations of Andreeva and Chultsova’s rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, this week’s CFJ brief friend also argues that the trial itself was unfair because the court interrupted the defense team’s questioning of a key witness. Under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) – a treaty which Belarus has ratified – those accused of a crime have the right “to examine[lestémoinscontre[them]. “But here the court cut short the questioning of the defendants of a department head of the Minsktrans transport agency, who was testifying about the alleged traffic stop on November 15 – a factual question central to the theory of l accusation that the demonstration disrupted public order.

The brief also claims that the trial was unfair because the court sentenced the defendants through an arbitrary judgment. Under the ICCPR, defendants have the right “to be presumed innocent until proven guilty according to the law”, which – according to the United Nations Human Rights Committee – can be violated speak arbitrary evaluation of evidence. Here, the court failed to establish the crucial factual elements of the charges and categorically refused to take into account the main evidence and arguments of the defense. The court, for example, ignored expert findings that the journalists’ broadcast showed no effort to “organize” the protest. Belarus has a duty to respect these rights to a fair trial, to freedom of expression and to freedom of association, and if violated, to offer a remedy to victims.

Tomorrow, at a scheduled appeal hearing in the case of Andreeva and Chultsova, the Minsk municipal court will have the opportunity to remedy this injustice. Judges should overturn their convictions and let them go.

For Andreeva, the dangers of her profession were clear to her even before she was in the cage during her trial, facing years behind bars. “Every time I worked, I risked not only my freedom, but also my health and my life,” she explained in her closing statement, her words – despite all attempts to silence her – always finding a public. “For my family, it meant that one day I might not come home. “

IMAGE: Belsat TV journalists Katerina Bakhvalova (R) (reporting for the TV channel as Andreeva) and Daria Chultsova, who were arrested in November while covering anti-government protests, flash the V sign from the cage of an accused during their trial in Minsk on February 18, 2021. The journalists were sentenced to two years in prison for organizing illegal protests. (Photo by STRINGER / AFP via Getty Images)