The UJF has strongly condemned the concerted attack on 16 February by Belarusian security forces on  a number of the country’s journalists and journalists’ organisations.

State security officials pretending to be police officers, swooped on the home of Andrei Bastunets, the chair of the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ) and arrested him. BAJ press secretary Barys Haretski and its lawyer Aleh Aheyeu were also seized, according to a report on the BAJ website.

The union’s office was also searched. No official reason has been given for the clampdown on the BAJ, which represents journalists and other media workers in the country.

In the city of Gomel, the home of freelance journalist Larisa Shchirjakova was searched and all her  work equipment, including recording devices, were seized. The BAJ reports that many other searches of journalists’ homes and arrests took place across the country in some 20 locations.

The families of journalists have also been harassed, the BAJ says. The father and brother of journalist Yaugen Merkis have been subjected to home searches and had their personal computers and cell phones confiscated.

“Belarusian journalists and human rights activists have been intimidated by arbitrary arrests and criminal charges. Now they and the organisations that represent them are being attacked in an systematic and coordinated way”, said UJF international officer Juha Rekola.

“And this is happening in Europe, a few hundred kilometres from Finland. This cannot be tolerated.”

The UJF demands the immediate release of all detainees and the return of confiscated property.

“The OSCE, the Council of Europe and the European Union must finally take definite steps to restore freedom of expression and the rule of law and to end the repression of dictator Alexander Lukashenko,” said Rekola.

The Union of Journalists hopes that the Finnish Ministry for Foreign Affairs will step up its efforts and put pressure on the Belarusian authorities to defend freedom of expression and journalists’ rights and freedoms in the country.