Photographing Teddy Bears is a Crime? IPI calls for release of Belarusian photojournalist
The International Press Institute (IPI) and its affiliate, the South-East Europe Media Organisation (SEEMO), today called on Belarusian authorities to immediately release photojournalist Anton Surapin, who has been held in a KGB prison since July 13 for publishing photographs of teddy bears.
The photographs stem from a July 4 incident in which a Swedish public relations firm, Studio Total, reportedly dropped 1,000 teddy bears carrying pro-free-speech messages from an aeroplane inside Belarusian airspace. After posting images of the stuffed animals on his website, Surapin was arrested and charged with aiding an illegal border crossing.
According to news reports, authorities are pursuing the charges despite statements from Studio Total that it had no contact with Belarusian citizens prior to the teddy-bear drop, which Belarusian authorities initially denied had ever taken place. While Surapin has said the photos in question were e-mailed to him anonymously, the 20-year old journalist student now faces up to seven years in prison.
Iryna Vidanava, founder and editor-in-chief of Belarus’s 34 Multimedia Magazine, which received IPI’s 2012 Free Media Pioneer Award, told IPI that Surapin was being held in virtual isolation, and was allowed only “rare” visits with his lawyer. Vidanava said Surapin’s mother had only heard from her son once, in a written letter, since his arrest. Details about the exact nature of the charges, she added, were scarce.
The Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ) this week announced the launch of a petition campaign for Surapin’s release. In the petition text, the BAJ said it believed Surapin’s prosecution was “directly connected with his professional activities and egregiously violates the right to receive, store and disseminate information, which is guaranteed by the Belarusian Constitution”.
IPI Deputy Director Anthony Mills said: “Authorities in Belarus have yet to provide evidence that Anton Surapin has done anything but report the news – which is not a crime. His arrest and continued detention will only increase self-censorship in Belarus, where the voices of independent journalists are desperately needed to counter the government’s tight control of public information. We fully support our colleagues at the Belarusian Association of Journalists in calling for Mr. Surapin’s immediate release.”
In a further incident, authorities last week arrested journalist Irina Kozlik and photographer Yulia Doroshkevich after the pair posed for photographs while holding teddy bears during an anti-government protest in Minsk. The alleged border violation has also given rise to a serious diplomatic rift between Belarus and Sweden, with Minsk recently ordering all Swedish diplomats out of the country.