TALINN, Estonia (AP) — A court in Belarus on Wednesday sentenced yet another independent journalist to a lengthy prison term, part of a continued government crackdown on opposition activists, critical media outlets and independent reporters.
Iryna Slaunikava, 52-year-old journalist with the Poland-based TV channel Belsat, was convicted of forming an extremist organization and participating in protests and sentenced to five years in prison. The sentence handed to Slaunikava by a judge in Gomel, a city in southeastern Belarus, is one year longer than what the prosecution had sought for her, according to the Belarusian Association of Journalists.
Slaunikava is the third Belsat journalist imprisoned in Belarus. Belsat, a Belarusian-language TV channel funded by the Polish government, has been declared extremist by Belarus' authorities. It has been a source of news for hundreds of thousands of Belarusians ever since it started broadcasting in 2007. Belsat's YouTube channel currently has 474,000 subscribers.
Belarusian authorities have conducted a relentless, multi-pronged crackdown on dissent following the massive anti-government protests that erupted after President Alexander Lukashenko was handed a sixth term after an August 2020 presidential vote that was denounced as rigged by the opposition and the West.
A wave of repression saw more than 35,000 people arrested and thousands beaten by police. The country's largest independent media outlets have been shut down, and the majority of independent journalists have left the country. A total of 29 journalists are currently behind bars, either awaiting trials or serving lengthy sentences.
Last month, another Belsat journalist Katsiaryna Bakhvalava, who also goes by the last name of Andreyeva, was sentenced to eight years in prison on the charges of high treason — on top of a two-year sentence she was already serving. Her colleague, Darya Chultsova, is currently serving a two-year sentence from 2021.
Slaunikava spent the last 10 months in detention. She was detained in October last year at the Minsk airport upon returning from vacation. Initially, she was jailed for 15 days for posting what the authorities deemed to be “extremist content” on Facebook.
In Warsaw on Tuesday and Wednesday, demonstrations took place in support of the journalist, with protesters demanding sanctions to be imposed on those who persecute journalists in Belarus.
“Journalists are not extremists, and dissent is not a crime,” the Belarusian Association of Journalists said in a statement Wednesday. “Belarusian authorities continue to persecute journalists for exercising their right to free speech.”
The Committee to Project Journalists on Wednesday condemned the sentence handed out to Slaunikava as “another example of the deeply cynical and vindictive nature of the Belarusian government.”