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Belarus journalist group wins UNESCO’s press freedom award

April 27, 2022 GMT

LVIV, Ukraine (AP) — Belarus’ top independent journalists’ organization has been awarded a UNESCO press freedom award.

The Belarusian Association of Journalists has been named as the laureate of the 2022 UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize — a $25,000 award for “outstanding contributions to the defense or promotion of press freedom especially in the face of danger,” UNESCO announced Wednesday.

“For twenty-five years, the UNESCO/Guillermo Cano Prize has been calling the world’s attention to the bravery of journalists around the world who sacrifice so much in the pursuit of truth and accountability. Once again, we are inspired by their example and reminded of the importance of ensuring the right of journalists everywhere to report freely and safely,” Audrey Azoulay, UNESCO’s director-general, said in the statement.

BAJ, a non-governmental association of journalists, has operated in Belarus since 1995 and is the country’s largest NGO, with over 1,300 members. It has won a number of prestigious awards for standing up for press freedom. The country’s Supreme Court ordered it to liquidate last August as part of the government’s unprecedented crackdown on dissent that engulfed the ex-Soviet nation following months of mass protests.

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The demonstrations broke out in August 2020 after authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko was given a sixth term in office in a presidential election widely seen as rigged. Thousands of protesters were detained, and the authorities clamped down hard on human rights groups and independent media, shutting down news outlets and imprisoning journalists.

The order to liquidate BAJ followed the jailing of some 30 journalists, raids on newspaper offices, blocking the websites of major independent media and closing the PEN Center writers’ organization that was headed by Nobel literature laureate Svetlana Alexieveich, who herself is a member of BAJ.

“This award is dedicated to all those who pay an enormous price for standing up for the principles of independent journalism in Belarus, where the situation with freedom of speech is the worst in all of Europe,” BAJ leader Andrei Bastunets told The Associated Press on Wednesday. “Torture, beatings, prosecution of independent media and journalists in Belarus have become systemic.”

Currently, 24 media workers in Belarus remain behind bars either awaiting trials or serving sentences. Hundreds of Belarusian journalists have faced administrative arrests and raids. Bastunets, like many other Belarus journalists, has left the country following a series of raids and detentions.

The awards ceremony will take place on May 2 in Punta del Este, Uruguay, at the World Press Freedom Day Global Conference.