Belarusian authorities have revoked the accreditation of more than a dozen journalists from foreign media outlets, a day before a big protest is due to be held against strongman Alexander Lukashenko.
Mr Lukashenko, who has ruled the eastern European nation with an iron fist for 26 years, has been under intense pressure since claiming a landslide victory in a deeply flawed presidential election on August 9.
Hundreds of thousands of Belarusians have taken to the streets to protest against the official election result and a further round of demonstrations is due to be held in towns and cities across the country on Sunday.
A number of foreign news organisations with staff in Belarus — including the BBC, Reuters, Agence France-Presse, Associated Press, Germany’s WDR and RFE/RL — all said on Saturday that some of their journalists had been stripped of accreditation. Some were deported.
The move is the latest attempt by Mr Lukashenko’s regime to clamp down on independent media. On Thursday evening, around 50 journalists were detained by riot police for several hours, ostensibly for a document check, as they prepared to cover a protest.
The BBC said on Saturday that two journalists working for its Russian service in Minsk had their accreditation revoked, and called on the government to reverse the decision. “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this stifling of independent journalism,” the BBC said.
Germany’s WDR said that one of its camera teams, consisting of two Russians and a Belarusian, had been detained on Friday night in front of their hotel in Minsk, held overnight in a police station, and then had their accreditation withdrawn.
“The two Russian colleagues have already been expelled from the country, and are on the way to Moscow. They have been banned from entering Belarus for five years. The Belarusian producer faces a court case on Monday,” WDR said.
“I am outraged at what is happening, and consider the way our team in Minsk was treated completely unacceptable,” said Jörg Schönenborn, WDR’s programme director.
“This shows once again that independent reporting in Belarus is being increasingly hindered, and made almost impossible.”
AFP cited a government spokesman as saying that the decision to revoke the accreditations had been taken “on the recommendation of the country’s counter-terrorism unit”.
In the days immediately after the election, Mr Lukashenko’s regime launched a savage crackdown on his opponents, with riot police using rubber bullets, flash-bang grenades, water cannon and beatings to try to quell protesters.
After three days of violence, during which at least three people died, hundreds were injured, and almost 7,000 people were detained, including some who were not even protesting, the authorities backed off.
But over the past week, there have been signs that Mr Lukashenko has decided to ratchet up the pressure on his opponents.
Two opposition leaders have been jailed, and riot police have again detained people taking part in peaceful protests. The human rights group Viasna said on Friday that around 240 people had been held after a protest outside a church in central Minsk.
“After the protesters, many of whom were carrying icons, reached their destination, the Catholic church of Saints Simon and Helena . . . they were surrounded by dozens of riot policemen, who detained men, but allowed women to walk free,” Viasna said.
“Some of them were released during the night after facing ‘illegal protesting’ charges and are expected to stand trials soon.”