(New York, NY) — The sentencing of two Belarusian journalists to two years in prison over their coverage of protests in the country represents an egregious injustice that is part of a continued crackdown on free press and freedom of expression in Belarus, PEN America said today. On Thursday, a court in Minsk sentenced Katsiaryna Andreyeva and Darya Chultsova, who work for the Poland-based broadcaster Belsat, to two years in prison. They were found guilty of “organizing activities which violate the public order.”

Andreyeva, a journalist (legal name Bakhvalova), and Chultsova, a camera operator, were first detained on November 15, 2020, after live-streaming a demonstration in commemoration of protester and artist  Raman Bandarenka, reportedly beaten to death by plainclothes police officers days earlier. On the afternoon of the protests, ten riot police stormed the apartment where the journalists were live-streaming, confiscated and seized their video equipment, and detained them. Allegedly, Andreyeva had voiced support for the peaceful protests at various points over the course of the livestream. Shortly thereafter, a formal criminal case was opened against the two journalists. Authorities then searched their homes those of their relatives. Both women pleaded not guilty, and their lawyer intends to appeal the verdict. 

“The sentencing of Katsiaryna Andreyeva and Darya Chultsova is an egregious and politicized assault on press freedom, and their punishment is clearly meant to send a message to journalists covering the protests that merely doing their job may land them in prison,” said Polina Sadovskaya, Eurasia program director at PEN America. “That is simply unacceptable. Journalism is no crime, and reporters are doing essential work by shining a light on the Belarusian regime’s continued rights abuses. Katsaryna and Darya should not spend a day in prison. We call for their immediate and unconditional release, and for the Belarusian government to cease its unrelenting attack on freedom of expression, assembly, and the press.”  

The sentences follow Tuesday’s police raids, during which authorities entered the homes and offices of journalists and human rights defenders. As other journalists await their trials, PEN America calls on the international community to press the government of Belarus to end its campaign of repression