WARSAW (Reuters) – In an elegant apartment building in central Warsaw flying a red and white flag from its first floor balcony, a symbol of the Belarusian opposition, remnants of the anti-government media in Belarus are shrugging off a new wave of death threats.
Less than a year ago, Roman Protasevich, a 26-year-old blogger and opponent of veteran President Alexander Lukashenko, was sitting in the same office helping live stream anti-government protests around 300 miles (480 km) to the east which he hoped would topple Lukashenko.
His former colleagues recall how they all worked 24/7, slept on mattresses, and believed that Lukashenko’s days were numbered.
On Sunday, a plane carrying Protasevich flying over Belarus en route to nearby Lithuania was forced to land in Minsk, the Belarusian capital, with the help of a false bomb threat and a MiG-29 fighter jet. Protasevich was arrested and is in a Minsk jail.
Protasevich’s former colleagues at Warsaw-based Nexta, an anti-Lukashenko news outlet which reaches its more than 1 million subscribers on the Telegram messaging app, are anxious.
Outside their office perched on collapsible chairs, two Polish policemen keep watch.
“…After the incident with Roman’s plane, we began to receive hundreds, already more than a thousand different threats,” Stsiapan Putsila, Nexta’s founder, told Reuters in an interview.
“(Threats) that they will shoot us, that our office will be blown up. Of course, this is worrying,” he said, sitting in a large gaming chair that he said was used by Protasevich.
Putsila said the threats came in the form of anonymous emails and private social media messages.
“We’re used to it because they have been trying to strangle us. For some years we’ve been one of the Telegram channel/news outlets which is inconvenient for the regime which cannot be blocked,” he said.
Putsila said he and his team took security measures which they could not discuss publicly. His staff had been followed, he said, and people had tried to break into the office.
Police in Warsaw did not reply to a written request about the threats Putsila said Nexta staff had received. Lukashenko’s press service could not be reached for comment and a spokesman for the Belarusian Investigative Committee, which investigates major crimes, did not respond to written questions from Reuters.
Inside Belarus, what is left of the opposition-minded media says it is being squeezed too.
Earlier on Tuesday, the popular news website TUT.BY reported that four of its employees had gone missing.
The last message from one of its reporters, Alya Burkovskaya, said a man was trying to get into her apartment in the guise of an electrician. Another, Anastasia Prudnikova, was arrested shortly after returning from maternity leave. They were all later freed.
TUT.BY said security forces detained 14 other members of its staff, including Marina Zolotova, its editor-in-chief, last week and blocked access to its website, in a tax evasion case that TUT.BY says is fabricated.
The State Control Committee, to which the financial investigation department reports, said a criminal case against unnamed staff had been opened over suspected tax evasion.
TUT.BY has sought to sidestep the crackdown by continuing to post news on its Telegram messenger feed.
Branding them a menace to society, Lukashenko’s government has stripped many news organisations of their accreditation. Opposition-leaning journalists say they have faced raids, arrest, imprisonment or been forced to relocate abroad.
The Belarusian Association of Journalists says 477 journalists were detained in 2020.
Lukashenko had tolerated some opposition-minded and foreign media until mass protests erupted following a presidential election last August that his opponents say was rigged to keep him in power.
Lukashenko denies electoral fraud. He has accused the media of doing everything to “destroy people’s trust in the state” and the government has accused some journalists of helping to orchestrate protests.
The state news agency BelTA has published comments on its website in support of the government’s measures against journalists. On May 18, it quoted political scientist Alexander Shpakovsky’s comments accusing TUT.BY of spreading falsehoods.
Television footage has shown journalists covering protests being hauled into a police van. Police have at times accused journalists of coordinating protests and of inciting what they call mass riots.
Those who still dare to do such work wear an extra pair of underwear or socks in case they are detained, say some Belarusian journalists still working there.
The authorities say they are battling foreign-backed terrorists and plotters intent on revolution and regime change.
“There has never been such a peak in repressions against journalists … and freedom of speech in general in the entire history of Belarus,” said Barys Haretski, deputy head of the Belarusian Association of Journalists.
“Over the past year, we have recorded 62 acts of violence against journalists – these are beatings by security officials during detentions and in isolation wards, and three cases when security officials fired at journalists with rubber bullets,” Haretski said.
A day after Protasevich’s arrest, the government introduced new measures to regulate media activities, including a blanket ban on covering protests or publishing opinion polls without prior authorisation from the government.
“Lukashenko destroys the press because it is a mirror in which the monstrous essence of the regime is reflected,” exiled opposition politician Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya told the Italian newspaper La Repubblica on Tuesday.
Kirill Voloshin, the TUT.BY co-founder, said none of its 250 employees had quit since the crackdown and advertisers had stayed loyal.
“Even if one person remains, he will work. Even if everyone is taken away, we are sure that others will come to the place of those who are taken away,” he said.
(Reporting by Alicja Ptak in Warsaw and Matthias Williams in London; Additional reporting by Tom Balmforth, Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber, Alan Charlish, Anna Koper and Maria Vasilyeva; Writing by Matthias Williams and Andrew Osborn; Editing by Nick Tattersall and Howard Goller)