World Explained: How an innocent trip to Belarus made me realise the fragility of press freedom

Belarus is an authoritarian state

Belarus, which is an ally of Russia and is led by dictator Alexander Lukashenko, is one of the places that now, as a foreign editor, I would be somewhat cautious about visiting. That would be along with Russia, China and a growing list of other countries whose suspicious governments I have probably annoyed by writing about them.

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Back in those days, I wasn’t writing about international politics and angering world leaders, I was consumer affairs correspondent, covering little more controversial than the rising price of olive oil, or why people shouldn’t waste money on paying surcharges to sit with their travel companions on Ryanair flights.

Belarus' President Alexander Lukashenko rules the country.Belarus' President Alexander Lukashenko rules the country.
Belarus' President Alexander Lukashenko rules the country.

I spent my long weekend in Belarus with two old friends. The Belarusian authorities knew who I was and what I was doing, yet they were still clearly suspicious of me. I had had to apply for a journalist visa to visit Belarus, but had done so with the support of the International Skating Union – I really was covering skating.

For those who aren’t regular readers of my contributions to the sports section, it’s a legitimate sideline of mine. As we wandered around the city, we noticed a man in dark clothing who appeared everywhere we went. He was walking behind us on the metro; my friends spotted him sitting three rows back at the figure skating. Belarus still has a KGB.

The man didn’t approach us, but he made me uneasy, especially after I remembered I have a name twin, another journalist called Jane Bradley, who at the time worked for Buzzfeed and had written a lot more controversial international stories which might interest the Belarus government far more than my output.

Luckily, bidding a silent goodbye to our shadow, we left Belarus without incident. Three years later, I was appointed world editor and quickly realised my travel choices were no longer as free as they once had been. As I write this, hundreds of journalists around the world are behind bars – for no greater crime than simply doing their work.

US journalist Evan Gershkovich was arrested on espionage charges over a year ago.US journalist Evan Gershkovich was arrested on espionage charges over a year ago.
US journalist Evan Gershkovich was arrested on espionage charges over a year ago.

Friday marks World Press Freedom Day, an annual event that aims to evaluate press freedom around the world and defend the media from attacks on its independence.

According to Reporters Without Borders, nearly 800 journalists were jailed at some point last year, with around 500 in prison at any one time.

RWB says nearly half of jailed journalists are detained in four countries: China, Myanmar, Belarus and Vietnam. But while the issues in these countries are long-established, in others, the situation is deteriorating, fast.

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Since it launched its invasion of Ukraine, Russia has deemed those who speak out against the conflict to be “foreign agents”.

One of the most high-profile detainees is Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, from the US, who has been in prison for over a year on charges of espionage, something that has been flatly denied by both his employer and the US Government. If convicted, he could be behind bars for 20 years.

Each imprisoned journalist has a life and a family. Their individual stories are tragedies. Yet of equal importance is the work they are not able to do, leaving governments not being held to account.



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