The Journal Gazette
Thursday, January 21, 2021 1:00 am

Press freedom is tightening across globe

Jack Ronald

And then there were two.

Two of my friends and colleagues are now imprisoned in the last dictatorship in Europe, Alexander Lukashenko's Belarus.

Yulia Slutskaya and her staff at Belarus Press Club have now been categorized as “political prisoners” by the human rights group Viasna.

The official charge involves the tax laws, but that's a common ploy for authoritarian governments trying to shut down dissent.

Any non-governmental organization that gets a nickel of financial support from the U.S. or a fraction of a Euro from the EU is a likely target for charges of tax law violations.

Yulia was founder of Press Club. Since 2011, it has been a source of training for Belarusian reporters. It also brought in speakers – often from the west – for lectures and news conferences. On a very basic level, it has served as a gathering place for reporters and editors to support one another in the face of 26 years of Lukashenko rule.

She was arrested a few days before Christmas.

When I met Yulia in 2005, she was managing editor of Komsomolskaya Pravda's Belarus edition. I did some training work with her staff and was honored to have dinner in the Slutskaya apartment in Minsk with Yulia, her husband, her son Peter, and our colleague Galina.

Today, she is – I'm guessing – about 55. She's a grandmother. And she'll be in the slammer until at least Feb. 22, probably longer. If she doesn't contract COVID-19 while incarcerated, it will be a miracle.

Now she is joined in Akrestina Detention Center by Andrei Aliaksandrau.

Andrei is about 42 now, but he was in his 20s when we met in Warsaw, Poland.

He was one of about 20 Belarusian journalists who made the trip to Warsaw to take part in a seminar by the International Center for Journalists.

Why Poland? Because the Lukashenko government would not allow that sort of professional training for journalists in Belarus.

Bob Tinsley of the International Center for Journalists and I conducted a week-long seminar, and Andrei was an energetic participant.

At its conclusion, I was able to take the night train from Warsaw to Minsk with the seminar participants so I could do follow-up visits in cooperation with the Belarusian Association of Journalists.

One of my first stops on that road trip was in Novopolotsk, where Andrei was working as a section editor of a small, struggling paper.

What did we talk about? Self-sufficiency. Independence. Government pressure. Transparency. Objectivity. Fact-based reporting. Separating news from opinion. Making sure the reader knows what's reportage and what is advertising.

In other words, the usual.

And it was during one of our many conversations that Andrei gave me the title for a report I would later draft for the ICFJ.

“Putting out a newspaper in Belarus,” he said, “is like playing football in a minefield. It's very interesting but hard on the nerves.”

He went on to earn a master's in media management from the University of Westminster in London, serve as deputy chairman of the Belarusian Association of Journalists and serve three years as deputy director of BelaPAN news agency.

Today, he is considered a suspect under Article 342 of the Criminal Code of the Republic of Moldova, facing a charge of “Organization and preparation of actions that grossly violate public order, or active participation in them.”

The new year has just started, but already it looks like it's going to be a long one for international journalism.

Jack Ronald is president of the Commercial Review in Portland and a member of the Indiana Journalism Hall of Fame. He has trained community journalists in Moldova, Kyrgyzstan and Myanmar.

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