Belarus labels Polish-funded TV channel extremist

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — A court in Belarus on Tuesday declared a Polish-funded television channel that extensively covered last year’s anti-government protests in the country extremist, the latest move in a sweeping crackdown on independent media and civil society activists.

The court in the city of Gomel labeled the Belsat channel extremist, and the authorities said they blocked its website and all social media accounts in Belarus. The ruling was based on an inquiry by Belarus’ Interior Ministry, according to ministry spokeswoman Olga Chemodanova.

It wasn’t immediately clear which of Belsat’s content was deemed extremist, but Chemodanova noted that sharing or posting content of an outlet that has been labeled extremist carries a fine or arrest of up to 15 days.

Belarusian authorities have ramped up action against nongovernmental organizations and independent media, with more than 200 raids of offices and apartments of activists and journalists so far this month, according to the Viasna human rights center.

President Alexander Lukashenko has vowed to continue what he called a “mopping-up operation” against civil society activists whom the authoritarian leader denounced as “bandits and foreign agents.”

More than 50 NGOs in total are facing closure. They include the Belarusian Association of Journalists, the biggest and the most respected media organization in the country, and the Belarusian PEN Center, an association of writers led by Svetlana Alexievich, the winner of the 2015 Nobel Prize in literature.

Belarusian authorities have also shut down the biggest independent media outlets in the country, including the widely popular news site and the renowned Nasha Niva newspaper. A total of 27 journalists in Belarus are currently behind bars, either awaiting trial or serving their sentences.

The Belarusian-language Belsat TV channel, which is funded by Poland’s government, has remained a source of news for hundreds of thousands of Belarusians since it started broadcasting in 2007. Belsat’s YouTube channel has 471,000 subscribers.

Belsat extensively covered mass protests against Lukashenko in 2020 and 2021, and two of its reporters, Katsiaryna Andreyeva and Daria Chultsova, were sentenced to two years in prison in February.

The channel’s deputy director, Aleksy Dzikawicki, told The Associated Press that “when laws don’t work,” the ruling declaring Belsat extremist “can hardly be called legitimate,” but there is no point in trying to contest it.

“The people in power in Belarus label those as extremists who stand up against violence and terror, against stolen elections,” Dzikawicki told the AP from Warsaw, Poland.

Lukashenko, who faced months of protests triggered by his election to a sixth term in an August 2020 vote that the opposition and the West saw as rigged, responded to demonstrations with a massive crackdown that saw more than 35,000 people arrested and thousands beaten by police.

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Lukashenko’s main election challenger, who was forced to leave Belarus under official pressure after the election, traveled to the United States last week for meetings with officials of President Joe Biden’s administration and members of Congress to rally support for the Belarusian opposition.

In a video statement on Tuesday, Tsikhanouskaya expressed support for Belsat.

“The journalists know that they’re doing the right thing and are fighting for the freedom of our country,” she said.