Nov. 3 (Reuters) – Belarus on Wednesday declared Poland-based news channel Belsat to be an “extremist” organization, meaning its employees and viewers could face up to seven years in prison.
President Alexander Lukashenko’s government has targeted activists, protesters and journalists in a violent crackdown on dissent since a contested election last year that the opposition says has been openly rigged to extend its rule since 1994.
Belsat, a Warsaw-based satellite channel that offers Belarusians an alternative to Belarusian state media, has been in the government’s sights and two of its journalists were jailed in February for filming a protest. Read more
Its content was declared “extremist” in an earlier ruling in July, meaning anyone caught broadcasting it could be detained for 30 days. The channel is banned in Belarus although viewers access it over the Internet on virtual private networks.
“The groups of citizens gathered through the Internet resources ‘BELSAT’ are recognized as an extremist formation and their activities are prohibited on the territory of the Republic of Belarus,” the Interior Ministry said in a statement.
Belsat deputy director Alyaksei Dzikavitsky called the move “absurd” and a futile attempt to stifle the flow of free and uncensored information.
“It’s like punishing people who gather around a shelf in a library,” he said in a video statement.
“Of course, it is impossible to recognize the millions of Belarusians who look at us or read on social media as extremists. It is the same as recognizing the entire population as extremists. Because the overwhelming majority of Belarusians trust independent mass media, including Belsat.
The move follows a similar crackdown last week on three Poland-based social media channels with large audiences in Belarus. Read more
Tens of thousands of people have been detained since the crackdown began last year and rights groups say more than 800 people are now in prison as political prisoners.
The crackdown prompted the United States, the European Union and Britain to impose new sanctions on Minsk, but Lukashenko remained in power, backed by money and diplomatic support from the traditional Russian ally.
“For the first time in history, the regime has called the entire television channel – @Belsat_TV – an extremist group,” wrote on Twitter Franak Viacorka, senior adviser to exiled opposition leader Sviatlana. Tsikhanouskaya.
“The label extends to both viewers and journalists. 940,000 people in total. On the one hand – it’s a threatening tool, on the other – it’s proof of the channel’s success.”
Since the crackdown, Lukashenko has also been at odds with neighboring EU countries who accuse his government of causing a migrant crisis on their shared border as a form of hybrid war. Lukashenko denies having done so.
Poland on Wednesday accused Belarus of organizing an armed cross-border intrusion and summoned the Belarusian charge d’affaires to protest what it sees as a deliberate escalation of the migrant crisis at the border. Read more
Additional reporting by Anna Wlodarczak-Semczuk in Warsaw; written by Matthias Williams; edited by Nick Macfie
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