Workshop of Belarusian journalists in exile

20 November 2023, Warsaw, Poland


Dear representatives of Belarusian democratic forces and the media community, the Press Club-Belarus, the Belarusian Association of Journalists, and PEN Belarus,

Dear colleagues from the Office of the OSCE Representative for Freedom of Media,

Dear partners from the European Federation of Journalists and Justice for Journalists Foundation,

Ladies and gentlemen,

I am very pleased to welcome you, on behalf of the Secretary General of the Council of Europe, to this second Workshop of Belarussian journalists in exile. The event has been organised jointly by the Council of Europe and the Justice for Journalists Foundation and in direct collaboration with the Belarusian democratic forces and civil society.

It is a pleasure to see so many Belarusians who continue to carry out their professional duties and fight for democracy in Belarus, despite the challenges of living and working in exile and the real risks to their safety and the well-being of their families. It is also a pleasure to see many representatives of European organisations, NGOs and media hubs who provide much needed support to Belarusian journalists in exile.

This is the second meeting of Belarusian journalists organised this year by the Council of Europe. The first one took place in Strasbourg in March and some of you attended that.

These workshops have become possible because after the rigged presidential elections in Belarus in August 2020 and the mass protests that followed, the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe decided to work with the Belarusian democratic opposition. Linked to that, the Council of Europe Contact Group on co-operation with Representatives of Belarusian democratic forces and civil society was set up.

It has been the formal decision of the Committee of Ministers to work with the Belarusian democratic forces, represented by the government of Ms Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya in exile, who in fact just a few days before the Workshop in Strasbourg, on 6 March, was sentenced in absentia by a Belarusian court to 15 years in prison for a number of clearly politically motivated charges.

Her husband, Sergey, is currently serving an 18-year sentence in Belarus. Other prominent opposition activists, such as Maria Kolesnikova and Maksim Znak, are serving prison terms on fake charges. Also, in March of this year, a court sentenced Belarus’ top human rights advocate and one of the winners of the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize, Ales Bialiatski, to 10 years in prison.  

The decision taken on 4 September this year by the Lukashenka regime to ban citizens of Belarus from obtaining and renewing national passports outside Belarus is another measure of repression against citizens of the country, which affects all of you[1]

The list of political prisoners includes imprisoned journalists, and the number of such cases is only growing. A few weeks ago, in October, the Belsat television channel called for a global response following the Lukashenka regime’s persecution of nine journalists who worked with the station broadcasting from Poland.

The Belarusian Association of Journalists, BAJ, was declared an “extremist organisation” by the Belarusian State Security Committee in February. The BAJ is the winner of the UNESCO World Press Freedom Prize. Earlier, the activities of both the BAJ and PEN Belarus were banned by the courts. I can only underline that the international community is outraged by these actions by the Belarusian authorities.

As I mentioned, the first meeting of Belarusian journalists in exile was held in Strasbourg with the symbolic connection to Europe that this represents. The second one is taking place here in the capital of Poland. It is the country which, along with fellow EU member state Lithuania, provides refuge and support to most of the Belarusian journalists and civil society activists who have had to flee Belarus. I would like to take this opportunity to thank the Polish and Lithuanian authorities and societies for their support.

At the same time, during the first Workshop we heard exiled journalists pointing to a number of logistical, administrative and even political hurdles that they face in the host EU and Council of Europe member states. With this in mind, today’s meeting can hopefully offer a good follow-up discussion to see what still needs to be done.

Another issue that was widely mentioned at the meeting in Strasbourg, as well as during the Workshop of Russian exiled journalists which the Council of Europe organised in Sweden in April, is support that exiled journalists would request from their counterparts in BigTech, managing major international social network platforms and search engines.

There are issues of access, visibility and prominence of Belarusian independent media channels, messages, and news feeds in the available social media, as well as their prominence in the services of search engines and news aggregators. There are issues related to enabling the existing algorithms used by the internet intermediaries to distinguish between content created by Russo-Belarusian propagandists and that coming from bona fide independent media, and more.

In my file for this Workshop, I have the appeal, prepared by two Belarusian NGOs – Human Constanta and Press Club Belarus, which describes the challenges in this area in detail. We have therefore invited representatives of BigTech to this meeting, in order to have a discussion with them about the challenges I just described, and hopefully finding solutions that will improve the situation. A warm welcome to you too.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Since February 2022, when the aggression of the Russian Federation against Ukraine began, the Council of Europe has been actively supporting Ukrainian journalists and its media community in fulfilling their urgent needs and creating conditions that will enable them to continue reporting on, and documenting, war crimes. We have also been working in the neighbouring countries of the Eastern Partnership region, where journalists, media actors and the public have been affected by the aggression.

According to the Ukrainian watchdog, the “Institute of Mass Information”[2], 68 media workers have been killed since the beginning of the Russian aggression. Abductions, death threats, and arrests of media workers and serious damage to media infrastructure are among the crimes committed by the Russian occupiers.

There must be no impunity for crimes such as those being committed in Ukraine. On 17 March, the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russian official Maria Lvova-Belova for an alleged scheme to deport Ukrainian children to Russia. The ICC decision is a signal that nobody, no dictator, should feel that they can commit crimes with impunity.

On 16-17 May this year, at the Council of Europe Summit in Reykjavik in Iceland, the Heads of States and Governments of the Organisation’s 46 member States, adopted the “Reykjavik Principles for Democracy” - principles to be respected and re-enforced by democratic states.

Moreover, it was decided to establish a Register of damage caused by the Russian Federation’s aggression against Ukraine as a first step towards an international compensation mechanism. The Register will serve as a record of evidence and claims’ information on damage, loss or injury caused since 24 February 2022 to all affected natural and legal persons, as well as to the Ukrainian State.

I mention this because clearly the aggression has caused significant damage to the Ukrainian media market and its infrastructure, and it has affected the safety of Ukrainian journalists and media workers. The Register may therefore be of interest to you once it is up and running, which should be very soon.

Last, but not least, at the Conference “The Pen Is Mightier Than the Sword?” held in Riga on 5-6 October 2023 under the Latvian Presidency of the Committee of Ministers, the Council of Europe’s Campaign for the Safety of Journalists was launched. The aim is to increase the safety of journalists and other media actors in all situations, based on the Council of Europe’s very clear standards in this field.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The journalists and media community of Ukraine need international support. Journalists from Belarus and the Russian Federation, who share our European values and are critical of the authoritarian regimes in their countries, who are vocal against the ongoing war and therefore find themselves in exile, also need our support. We are here to provide that, in the best way we can, however, modest.

I wish us all a fruitful workshop and close future cooperation.