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Raids, Arrests Will Not Deter Us, Belarus Media Say

Belarus is purging the space for information, local journalists say, pointing to raids on independent media outlets, arrests including of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty correspondents, and moves to shutter the Belarusian Association of Journalists.

Journalists, members of the opposition and activists have been targeted for arrest or harassment since widespread protests erupted last August over contested presidential elections in which President Alexander Lukashenko claimed victory as members of the opposition were jailed or forced to flee.

Most face charges of violating public order, damage to public property or accusations related to the country’s anti-terror laws.

The media environment has become so repressive that many journalists are working in underground conditions, says Andrei Bastunets, chair of the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ), who spoke to VOA’s Russian service earlier this month.

The Minsk-based organization documents arrests, attacks and raids on media in Belarus. Since August last year BAJ has documented at least 480 detentions and lists 33 journalists in custody. 

On Friday, it was named as one of dozens of nongovernmental organizations that are being forced to close.

The day before, Lukashekno was reported as saying he planned to “cleanse” the country of nonprofits, which he described as “bandits and foreign agents.”

“It’s a total mopping-up operation. The Justice Ministry isn’t even trying to respect decorum,” Bastunets told The Associated Press. “Even though the situation seems desperate, we will defend BAJ by legal means.”

Belarus has said that those being detained are suspected of inciting hatred or mass disorder, or are being investigated for tax fraud or other crimes. When the BAJ offices were raided in a separate incident in February, Belarus said it was investigating people “participating in activities aimed at violating public order.”

Obstacles to reporting

As well as arrests, authorities have revoked media accreditation, including for the popular news portal Tut.by. In May, authorities blocked access to the outlet’s news website, claiming it was in violation of the country’s mass media law.  

“Tut.by journalists have lost their professional status, and the authorities are consistently forcing independent journalists out of the legal domain. The legal space is shrinking to such an extent that now there is only a sliver of it left,” Bastunets told VOA’s Russian service.

Some outlets were already denied the official accreditation permitting them to work in the country, but Bastunets said more have been denied permits since August.

“Reporters working for the Polish Belsat TV channel have long been denied accreditation; they have been both fined and detained. Last September, all foreign correspondents were stripped of their accreditation, and yet some of them continue working in semi-underground conditions,” Bastunets said.

He said the situation is getting worse, with changes in legislation that now prohibit the filming of protests.

Despite attempts to disrupt the flow of information, citizens are learning how to bypass blocks to reach independent news websites, and a group of Tut.by journalists has set up a new platform, Bastunets said.

“If journalists provide quality information, they are listened to by the public. We have always had journalists who risked their lives to stay in the country to obtain information,” he said.

Natalya Radina, editor-in-chief of Charter97, a news website that has been blocked since 2018, described the harassment as an attempt to “purge the information space” but says she believes Belarus media will survive.

“We have been through prisons — and the biggest tragedy for us was that the founder of the site was killed — but as long as there are journalists who want to tell the truth, it will be impossible to destroy freedom of speech,” said Radina.

Charter97’s founder and director Aleh Byabenin was found dead outside Minsk in 2010.

“I do certainly sympathize with the journalists who were put behind bars, because I’ve been there myself,” Radina said. “But I also know that if they have the strength and courage to continue their work, they will manage to do so.”

Radina was arrested in December 2010 on charges of mass disorder during post-election protests.

The journalist says independent reporters should have a backup plan and be ready to move out of the country if necessary to continue reporting.

“If we have chosen this profession, we need to follow it through, whatever the obstacles the authorities put in our way,” Radina said. “The most important thing is not to tell lies and not be afraid.”

Igor Ilyash, a political analyst and journalist with Belsat TV, said that colleagues in Russia should watch closely what is happening to Belarus media. “Sooner or later the leading Russian independent media will go through the same process.”

Russia is already labeling more journalists and publications as “foreign agents,” the journalist said, adding that he believes both countries want a “completely sterile society, where there is no place for dissent.”

Ilyash’s wife, Katsiaryna Andreyeva, who also works in journalism, has been imprisoned in Belarus since November. She was convicted of orchestrating protests against Lukashenko.

Like Radina, Ilyash said he believes Belarus is purging the information space.

“Today they came after (news website) Nasha Niva and the regional media and journalists. Who will it be tomorrow?” he asked. “Despite all our recent losses, there are still enough journalists and mass media in Belarus who are working and telling the truth about what is going on.”

The journalist said he believes the current wave of repression may be linked to sanctions imposed by the European Union.

The EU in June imposed wide-ranging sanctions, including on Belarus’ main export, potash, over Lukashenko’s suppression of opposition protests, jailing of political rivals and strangling of critical media, Reuters reported.

In an interview with VOA on July 16, U.S. Senator Ben Cardin, chair of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, or “Helsinki Commission,” expressed shock and disappointment at the arrests and harassment of civil rights leaders and media.

“I can assure you we will express our outrage and demand that those that have been harassed, those who’ve been arrested, are released and allowed to perform their responsibilities,” the Democrat for Maryland said.

This story originated in VOA’s Russian service.

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South Africa Turmoil

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To Reach Peace Deal, Taliban Say Afghan President Must Go

The Taliban say they don’t want to monopolize power, but they insist there won’t be peace in Afghanistan until there is a new negotiated government in Kabul and President Ashraf Ghani is removed.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Taliban spokesman, Suhail Shaheen, who is also a member of the group’s negotiating team, laid out the insurgents’ stance on what should come next in a country on the precipice.

The Taliban have swiftly captured territory in recent weeks, seized strategic border crossings and are threatening a number of provincial capitals, as the last U.S. and NATO soldiers leave Afghanistan. This week, the top U.S. military officer, Gen. Mark Milley, told a Pentagon press conference that the Taliban have “strategic momentum,” and he did not rule out a complete Taliban takeover. But he said it is not inevitable. “I don’t think the end game is yet written,” he said.

Memories of the Taliban’s last time in power some 20 years ago, when they enforced a harsh brand of Islam that denied girls an education and barred women from work, have stoked fears of their return among many. Afghans who can afford it are applying by the thousands for visas to leave Afghanistan, fearing a violent descent into chaos. The U.S.-NATO withdrawal is more than 95% complete and due to be finished by Aug. 31.

Shaheen said the Taliban will lay down their weapons when a negotiated government acceptable to all sides in the conflict is installed in Kabul and Ghani’s government is gone.

“I want to make it clear that we do not believe in the monopoly of power because any governments who (sought) to monopolize power in Afghanistan in the past, were not successful governments,” said Shaheen, apparently including the Taliban’s own five-year rule in that assessment. “So we do not want to repeat that same formula.”

But he was also uncompromising on the continued rule of Ghani, calling him a war monger and accusing him of using his Tuesday speech on the Islamic holy day of Eid-al-Adha to promise an offensive against the Taliban. Shaheen dismissed Ghani’s right to govern, resurrecting allegations of widespread fraud that surrounded Ghani’s 2019 election win. After that vote, both Ghani and his rival Abdullah Abdullah declared themselves president. After a compromise deal, Abdullah is now No. 2 in the government and heads the reconciliation council.

Ghani has often said he will remain in office until new elections can determine the next government. His critics — including ones outside the Taliban — accuse him of seeking only to keep power, causing splits among government supporters.

Last weekend, Abdullah headed a high-level delegation to the Qatari capital Doha for talks with Taliban leaders. It ended with promises of more talks, as well as greater attention to the protection of civilians and infrastructure.

Shaheen called the talks a good beginning. But he said the government’s repeated demands for a ceasefire while Ghani stayed in power were tantamount to demanding a Taliban surrender.
“They don’t want reconciliation, but they want surrendering,” he said.

Before any ceasefire, there must be an agreement on a new government “acceptable to us and to other Afghans,” he said. Then “there will be no war.”

Shaheen said under this new government, women will be allowed to work, go to school, and participate in politics, but will have to wear the hijab, or headscarf. He said women won’t be required to have a male relative with them to leave their home, and that Taliban commanders in newly occupied districts have orders that universities, schools and markets operate as before, including with the participation of women and girls.

However, there have been repeated reports from captured districts of Taliban imposing harsh restrictions on women, even setting fire to schools. One gruesome video that emerged appeared to show Taliban killing captured commandos in northern Afghanistan.

Shaheen said some Taliban commanders had ignored the leadership’s orders against repressive and drastic behavior and that several have been put before a Taliban military tribunal and punished, though he did provide specifics. He contended the video was fake, a splicing of separate footage.

Shaheen said there are no plans to make a military push on Kabul and that the Taliban have so far “restrained” themselves from taking provincial capitals. But he warned they could, given the weapons and equipment they have acquired in newly captured districts. He contended that the majority of the Taliban’s battlefield successes came through negotiations, not fighting.

“Those districts which have fallen to us and the military forces who have joined us … were through mediation of the people, through talks,” he said. “They (did not fall) through fighting … it would have been very hard for us to take 194 districts in just eight weeks.”

The Taliban control about half of Afghanistan’s 419 district centers, and while they have yet to capture any of the 34 provincial capitals, they are pressuring about half of them, Milley said. In recent days, the U.S. has carried out airstrikes in support of beleaguered Afghan government troops in the southern city of Kandahar, around which the Taliban have been amassing, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said Thursday.

The rapid fall of districts and the seemingly disheartened response by Afghan government forces have prompted U.S.-allied warlords to resurrect militias with a violent history. For many Afghans weary of more than four decades of war, that raises fears of a repeat of the brutal civil war in the early 1990s in which those same warlords battled for power.

“You know, no one no one wants a civil war, including me,” said Shaheen.

Shaheen also repeated Taliban promises aimed at reassuring Afghans who fear the group.

Washington has promised to relocate thousands of U.S. military interpreters. Shaheen said they had nothing to fear from the Taliban and denied threatening them. But, he added, if some want to take asylum in the West because Afghanistan’s economy is so poor, “that is up to them.”

He also denied that the Taliban have threatened journalists and Afghanistan’s nascent civil society, which has been targeted by dozens of killings over the past year. The Islamic State group has taken responsibility for some, but the Afghan government has blamed the Taliban for most of the killings while the Taliban in turn accuse the Afghan government of carrying out the killings to defame them. Rarely has the government made arrests into the killings or revealed the findings of its investigations.

Shaheen said journalists, including those working for Western media outlets, have nothing to fear from a government that includes the Taliban.

“We have not issued letters to journalists (threatening them), especially to those who are working for foreign media outlets. They can continue their work even in the future,” he said.

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