MINSK, Belarus (AP) — In a new challenge to Belarus’ authoritarian ruler, hundreds of employees of state television have gone on strike amid a rising tide of protests, calling for his resignation after a vote the opposition saw as rigged.
The journalists’ action this week has shaken the government’s control of the media, helping further erode President Alexander Lukashenko’s grip after 26 years of iron-fisted rule.
Vyacheslav Lomonosov, one of Belarusian TV employees who joined the labor action, said he and his colleagues could no longer tolerate an official ban on reporting the truth about a brutal crackdown on protests that has stoked international outrage.
“There are people killed, raped, thousands are protesting, while they’re saying everything’s fine in the country and nothing is going on,” he said. “It can’t be like that, people need to get the truth from TV.”
Police brutally dispersed massive protests challenging Lukashenko’s victory in the Aug. 9 vote with rubber bullets, stun grenades and clubs, injuring hundreds and arresting nearly 7,000. At least three protesters died. Many of the detainees reported savage beatings and other abuse in police custody.
The fierce clampdown fueled outrage and caused protests to swell, with an estimated 200,000 rallying around the Belarusian capital’s central square on Sunday in the largest protest the ex-Soviet nation of 9.5 million ever saw.
Since Monday, factory workers, medical workers, actors, musicians and other workers have gone on strike to demand Lukashenko’s resignation.
The walkout of about 300 employees of Belarusian state TV has dealt a particularly painful blow to the Belarusian leader, who has relentlessly stifled independent media since coming to power in 1994 and relied on state-controlled television and other media to shape public opinion.
The state television workers were joined by journalists from the leading daily Zvyazda, who put out a statement demanding an end to censorship.
Facing the massive protests, the government has sought to tighten controls over information.
In the first four days of protests after the vote, police deliberately targeted journalists from independent Belarusian news outlets and foreign media, detaining scores, beating some of them, damaging their equipment and seizing memory cards.
Boris Goretsky, vice-president of the Belarusian Association of Journalists, said 72 journalists were detained while covering the protests.
He said that the authorities have blocked many online independent news media and denied accreditation to hundreds of foreign journalists, who have been eager to come to the country to cover the protests.
Goretsky pointed at the allegations that the government turned to Russia for help to keep the state television running, and some of the striking TV employees have been reportedly replaced with Russian personnel.
“There are reports that Russian journalists were invited to take the place of their striking colleagues, and started working on producing stories,” he said.