Serbia: Court must free Belarusian journalist and prevent his deportation

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Source/Author: Article 19

The undersigned partner organisations of the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR) demand the immediate release of Andrey Gniot, a Belarusian journalist and pro-democracy activist who is being held in custody by Serbian authorities on politically-motivated charges formulated by the regime of Alexander Lukashenko. Serbian courts have been deliberating upon a request to deport Gniot to Belarus since October 2023.

According to the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ), an independent trade union in exile, authorities arrested Gniot immediately upon his arrival to Serbia on 30 October 2023. His detention was based on an international arrest warrant issued by Interpol upon request by authorities in Belarus on alleged tax evasion charges. After a first appeal, the High Court of Belgrade is currently deliberating on whether the conditions for Gniot’s extradition to Belarus have been met.

The journalist first left his home country in 2021 after receiving ‘signals’ that authorities were aware of his activism, which he had not made public out of fear of reprisal, according to reports by independent Belarusian media. After first moving to Thailand, the journalist flew for work to Serbia, a country that remains a major hub for exiled Belarusians and Russians, as it is one of the few countries in Europe that they can enter without a visa. He was unaware that an international arrest warrant had been issued against him.

 

Activism and journalistic activity in Belarus

Gniot is mainly known for his activities as a director of music and TV commercials, as well as a journalist and political activist. He is one of the founders of SOS BY, an independent union of Belarusian sportspeople, which reportedly played a part in the canceling of the 2021 Hockey World Cup in Belarus. The decision was made months before the event and was motivated in part by ongoing human rights abuses perpetrated by authorities in the wake of the 2020-2021 mass protest movement against Lukashenko. SOS BY was later designated as an ‘extremist formation’ by the Belarusian state security services, which made it possible to sentence its members to lengthy prison terms.

Gniot is also known to have worked as a freelancer for Current Time TV, an independent Russian-language TV channel based in Prague, which is part of the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty media corporation. Current Time TV is also labelled as extremist in Belarus, with the channel’s website and social media accounts designated as ‘extremist material’ since January 2024. The media company supported Gniot by addressing a letter to Serbian authorities, in which the channel claimed that their journalist was being persecuted by Belarusian authorities for having worked with them.

While Gniot has been formally accused of tax evasion, he claims that he was never notified of these charges throughout the years during which he would have violated Belarusian tax laws. Tax evasion, as well as other charges, were also earlier used to incriminate Maryna Zolatava and Lyudmila Chekina, respectively the editor-in-chief and director general of Tut.by. The website used to be Belarus’ most popular independent online outlet before authorities forced its closure in 2021.

In addition, Gniot’s lawyers reported that authorities in Minsk based their accusations on a law adopted in 2019, while the charges are related to Gniot’s activities between 2012 and 2018.

 

Risk of political persecution in Belarus

Belarus remains Europe’s biggest jailer of journalists, with 36 media workers currently behind bars according to BAJ. The country of nine million also has the highest rate of imprisoned journalists per capita in the world.

Independent media are in practice fully banned at the national level, and independent journalists have been forced to go into exile, as staying in Belarus exposed them to inevitable repression as retaliation for both current and past activities.

Since 2020, authorities have labelled thousands of media outlets, website pages, social media accounts and other online content as various forms of ‘extremism’: as a result, journalists and readers alike face fines and prison terms for any interactions, current or past, with independent outlets designated as such. Security forces are known  to regularly detain Belarusian journalists and people who access independent media for past activities, with the first group receiving prison or other sentences restricting their liberty, and the second beinng typically forced to record videos ‘confessing’ to their ‘extremism’ before serving short-term prison terms (typically up to 15 days).

Given the wide scale politically-motivated repression in Belarus, we urge the High Court of Belgrade, which is currently handling Gniot’s case, to pronounce a decision in favour of his immediate release, as well as for relevant authorities in Serbia to not appeal such a decision.

Serbian authorities should take into account the unimaginable scale of repression of independent media in Belarus, and the fact that Belarusian authorities have weaponised tax evasion charges to take revenge on a journalist for his past successful activism against human rights abuses. Gniot’s deportation to Belarus would expose him to arbitrary detention and imprisonment, as well as inhumane treatment and torture while in custody.

Andrey Gniot must be freed and allowed to continue his professional activities in the country of his choice.

 

Signed:

International Press Institute (IPI)

ARTICLE 19 Europe

European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF)

European Federation of Journalists (EFJ)

Free Press Unlimited (FPU)

OBC Transeuropa (OBCT)

 

Source: Article19