Belarus flags US-based Radio Svaboda as extremist News
Petr Kadlec, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Belarus flags US-based Radio Svaboda as extremist

The Belarus Ministry of Internal Affairs (“the Ministry”) on Thursday added US-based broadcaster RadioFreeEurope/RadioLiberty (RFE/RL), also known locally as Radio Svaboda, to its registry of extremist organizations. Calling it a “continued clampdown on independent media and civil society,” RFE/RL stated that the Ministry took this action based upon allegations that a group of Belarus citizens associated via Radio Svaboda’s Internet resources were part of an extremist group.

Curiously, the Ministry’s website has been down since or before this development came about and its statement on the matter, as referred to by RFE/RL, is unavailable. However, RFE/RL President Jamie Fly condemned the arrest of the company’s journalists, Andrey Kuznechyk and Aleh Hruzdzilovich, and released his own statement on the matter:

we condemn the Belarusian government’s campaign to criminalize honest journalism and deprive the Belarusian people of the truth. We again adamantly reject this ridiculous, regime-imposed label—Radio Svaboda is not an “extremist organization.” …[Hruzdzilovich and Kuznechyk] are hostages taken by this lawless regime, not criminals. Factual reporting is not an “extremist” activity, and journalism is not a crime.

Kuznechyk was initially sentenced to 10 days in jail in November after he refused to accept the guilty verdict at trial on a controversial hooliganism charge. He is yet to be released from jail despite fully serving his second consecutive jail term and is currently facing unspecified criminal charges. Hruzdzilovich was arrested in a nationwide crackdown on journalists in July, but was released 10 days later with the message that he remains a suspect in an unspecified criminal case.

The crackdown on journalists is part of a larger crackdown on President Alexander Lukashenko’s political opponents. Since the highly controversial Belarusian 2020 national elections, the Lukashenko administration has jailed protestors and opposition activists, taken action against human rights groups, and banned social media sites that it deemed extremist, subjecting its subscribers to a potential seven-year prison term. This particular action subjects Belarusian citizens subscribing to Radio Svaboda online to up to six years in prison.

Although the Belarus government has received some negative press since its detention of protestors during mass rallies against Lukashenko in 2020, the government started receiving heavier international scrutiny since its arrest and detention of journalist Roman Protasevich and his girlfriend Seofia Sapega after it diverted their flight using an alleged false bomb threat. The move was immediately condemned by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

Belarus’s actions since the crackdowns have only added fuel to the fire and have been met with condemnation and sanctions across many countries and regions, including Canada, EU, UK and the US.