Free Speech in Belarus: Fighting for the Truth in a Climate of Oppression

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Free Speech in Belarus: Fighting for the Truth in a Climate of Oppression

15th June 2023 @ 6:00 pm - 7:30 pm

After the brutal crackdown on all independent voices in 2020, Belarusian independent media representatives were subjected to arrests, fines, searches and interrogations. The authorities blocked more than 3,000 online resources, while most independent print media were banned from distributing their materials.

Dozens of media organisations and hundreds of journalists were forced to relocate. 33 journalists are currently imprisoned. Following the forced landing of a Ryanair flight and consequent arrest of NEXTA co-founder Roman Protasevich and Russian blogger Sophia Sapega, Belarus saw the tightening of Western sanctions in response to this assault on freedom.

Despite the pressure directed against them, Belarusian independent media outlets continue their work providing high-quality objective information, which remains key in the fight against state propaganda and disinformation from both Russian and Belarusian state media.

The Henry Jackson Society welcomes you to a report launch event on attacks against media representatives in Belarus in 2021-2022, produced by the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ) and Justice for Journalists Foundation (JFJ). The speakers will present the main findings of the report, including Aleksander Lukashenka’s attacks on the free media and the situation with freedom of speech in other post-Soviet autocracies. We shall also discuss the role the UK and other European institutions can play in supporting Belarusian media.

The event will be held in-person and online. The simultaneous interpretation from English to Russian will be available for those joining online.



Andrei Bastunets has been the chairman of the Belarusian Association of Journalists since 2015.

On 16 February 2021, security forces stormed the homes of the leaders of the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ), a registered non-governmental organization that protects the rights of journalists. The office of the association was searched. Later it became known that such searches were carried out all over the country among human rights activists, journalists and activists.

On 27 August 2021, the Supreme Court of Belarus satisfied the claim of the Ministry of Justice for liquidation of the Belarusian Association of Journalists. Despite this, BAJ continued its activities in exile.

On the eve of World Press Freedom Day-2022 (May 3), BAJ was awarded three international awards, including the UNESCO/Guilherme Cano World Prize for Media Freedom.



Maryia Sadouskaya-Komlach is the director of Free Press for Eastern Europe and Non-resident Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA).

Maryia is a media development specialist, editor, and journalist with more than 15 years of professional experience. She has lived and worked in Belarus, U.S., Czechia, Poland, Belgium, the Netherlands, and France and managed projects involving 20+ countries in Eastern and Central Europe, Central Asia, and Central America.

Maryia’s research interests are democracy transition, human rights, and media. She holds Master’s degree in journalism/politics from Columbia University in New York.



Dr Robert Seely MBE MP is the Member of Parliament for the Isle of Wight. He sits on the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee and is Chair of both the Ukraine and Russia All-Party Parliamentary Groups. Dr Seely writes academically and journalistically on foreign affairs as well as more generally on non-conventional and new forms of conflict. Prior to his election in June 2017, Dr Seely served on the Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and ISIS campaigns as a member of the Armed Forces. From 1990 to 1994, Dr Seely lived in the Soviet Union and post-Soviet states. His academic and foreign affairs writing is available online at: Dr Seely has written one of the few peer-reviewed studies of Contemporary Russian Conflict Strategy available in the West and holds a PhD in Russian military strategy.



Maria Ordzhonikidze is a Director of the Justice for Journalists Foundation. Over the course of her international career, Ms Ordzhonikidze has designed and managed a number of public awareness, advocacy, human rights and crisis management campaigns. As a Secretary General of the EU-Russia Centre she oversaw its research and lobbying efforts in Brussels and wider Europe. Maria has developed and conducted training programmes for corporations, NGOs, media outlets and individuals. Ms Ordzhonikidze has authored research and articles and regularly speaks on subjects including sociological and political trends, international relations, freedom of speech and global security. She holds an MA in Sociology from the Moscow State University and an MA in Intelligence and Security from the London Brunel University.



Baroness Helena Kennedy KC is one of Britain’s most distinguished lawyers. She has spent her professional life giving voice to those who have least power within the system, championing civil liberties and promoting human rights. She has conducted many prominent cases of terrorism, official secrets and homicide. She is the founding force behind the establishment of the Bonavero Institute of Human Rights at the University of Oxford. In 1997, she was elevated to the House of Lords where she is a Labour peer. She has published a number of books including two on how the justice system is failing women, and has written and broadcasted on many issues over the years. Currently, she has taken on the role of Director to the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute. She directs the Institute’s work upholding the rule of law and human rights globally.






The Henry Jackson Society was grateful to host the Free Speech in Belarus panel discussion chaired by Baroness Helena Kennedy KC and conducted in both English and Russian. The panel was made up of Andrei Bastunets, Dr Robert Seely MBE MP, Maria Ordzhonikidze and Maryia Sadouskaya-Komlach, who each discussed the issue from the perspective of their expertise. The panellists outlined the important incidents of breached freedom of speech events in Belarus across the past 5 years, of which there have been 20,000. Andrei Bastunets brought attention to the fact that Belarus is in the top 5 countries globally with the largest number of journalists behind bars, and is in first place for female journalists who are currently imprisoned. The panel were unanimous in the belief that the Covid-19 pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine are used as pretext to impose ‘anti-extremist’ legislation that restricted independent journalists and media outlets from writing about “the truth”. They suggested that journalists that were critical toward the government, such as the domestic discontent for the handling of the pandemic, were most at risk and are forced to choose between their safety and profession. Maryia Sadouskaya-Komlach asserted that such anti-extremist legislation restricts journalists’ crucial access to sources. To conclude, Baroness Kennedy and Dr Seely suggested contacting major newspapers to raise awareness of the exiled journalists in the United Kingdom and other states in Europe. Dr Seely also encouraged seeking help from himself and Bill Browder to aid with issuing sanctions. The event made a valuable contribution in bringing necessary attention and discussion time to the infringement of free speech and persecution of journalists in Belarus.




Millbank Tower, 21-24 Millbank, London, England, SW1P 4QP
21-24 Millbank
Westminster, SW1P 4QP United Kingdom
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Andrey Bastunets, Maryia Sadouskaya-Komlach, Dr Bob Seely MBE MP, Maria Ordzhonikidze, Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws KC


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