The Committee to Protect Journalists calls on Belarusian authorities to disclose the reason for the recent detention of journalist Ales Sabaleuski and shed light on the whereabouts of journalist Aliaksei Batsiukou.
“The detention of journalist Ales Sabaleuski and the disappearance of journalist Aliaksei Batsiukou in the Belarusian city of Mahilou is especially worrying given the Belarusian authorities’ relentless crackdown on journalists and media outlets in the region,” said Gulnoza Said, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator, in New York. “Authorities should immediately reveal any charges filed against Sabaleuski, shed light on Batsiukou’s whereabouts and ensure that members of the press are not targeted for their work.”
On December 15, the state TV channel Belarus 4 Mahilou aired a video showing armed police in riot gear forcing their way into Batsiukou’s home to search the property and detain him. On Monday, December 18, the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ), an advocacy and trade group operating in exile, reported that Batsiukou has not been in touch since the search took place on December 5.
Batsiukou, a local journalist and the former director of the Mahilou history museum, covers local history on his YouTube channel, where he has about 260 subscribers.
Separately, on December 13, a court in Mahilou ordered that Sabaleuski be detained for 10 days on undisclosed charges, according to local human rights group MayDay and BAJ. Sabaleuski, a local journalist who has reported for a range of local publications during his career, had been arrested the previous day.
Two weeks earlier, on November 29, the Belarusian security service (KGB) labeled 6TV Bielarus and Mahilou Media, two local independent news outlets, as extremist groups. Belarus 4 Mahilou claimed that Batsiukou’s detention was linked to those outlets’ activities, media reported.
In another incident, the human rights group Viasna, which is banned in Belarus, reported that authorities searched the apartment of Barys Vyrich, the former chief editor of 6tv.by — the website affiliated with 6TV Bielarus, on December 6. Authorities seized his electronic devices and took him for questioning before releasing him later that day.
Authorities had previously searched the home of Sabaleuski and Vyrich in January 2021 and took them for questioning in connection with an unspecified criminal case, BAJ reported. In July, Batsiukou was detained for 11 days for allegedly distributing “extremist” content, BAJ said.
On December 11, MayDay reported that several other searches had allegedly been carried out in connection with 6TV Bielarus and Mahilou Media’s new “extremist” designations. Mahilou journalist Siarhei Antonov was forced to leave the country after being detained for two days, BAJ reported.
Anyone who distributes “extremist materials” can be held for up to 15 days, according to the Belarusian rights organization Human Constanta. Additionally, anyone charged with creating or participating in an extremist group faces up to 10 years in prison, according to the Belarusian Criminal Code, with potential sentences of up to eight years for financing extremism and up to seven years for facilitating such activity.
CPJ emailed the Belarusian Investigative Committee for comment but did not receive any response.
Belarus was the world’s fifth worst jailer of journalists, with at least 26 journalists behind bars on December 1, 2022, when CPJ conducted its most recent prison census.