The door of the Belarusian Association of Journalists main office in Minsk, Belarus on June 2021 © 2021 BAJ

On August 27, the Supreme Court of Belarus upheld the appeal by the Justice Ministry to strip the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ) of its official registration. Formal “liquidation” of the prominent group, which has worked tirelessly for 25 years to protect the rights of journalists, is a heavy blow to independent press in Belarus.

The Justice Ministry first notified the BAJ on June 21 of an audit and demanded the submission of thousands of documents by the following day. The organization complied, but couldn’t handover documents seized by law enforcement officials during the search of their office in February 2021.

On July 15, the Ministry issued a warning, demanding that BAJ submit the missing documents by July 16. The ministry also claimed the association’s offices in Homyel and Maladzyechna did not have registered addresses, which is not the case, according to BAJ.

To make things even more absurd, the day before the ministry issued its warning, law enforcement authorities raided BAJ’s headquarters again, sealing all the documents inside the office. Despite the association’s appeal for a deadline extension, the ministry then moved to liquidate BAJ.

Before the Supreme Court, BAJ argued there was no legal basis for the liquidation but the court said they “misunderstood the law”.

In July, when the liquidation procedure began, head of BAJ, Andrey Bastunets, told the press: “Today, the law does not protect us. Today, we protect the law.”

The grim truth is the law in Belarus has long been misused by authorities in their vicious crackdown against independent media. Authorities freely abuse the law to cast media outlets as “extremist” while pushing through legislative amendments making it even easier to shut down independent media, block websites, and stifle reporting on public protests.

Since August 2020, hundreds of journalists have been detained, some suffering beatings and ill-treatment while in custody. At least 26 media workers are currently behind bars. Dozens are witnesses and suspects in trumped up criminal cases.

“BAJ is not simply an entry in the registry of legal entities,” said Bastunets. “It is almost 1,500 members united by their mission to expand the space for freedom of speech in Belarus. It is friends and colleagues. It is US […] and WE will continue our work [despite the official liquidation].”