The International Press Institute (IPI), a global network of editors, media executives and leading journalists, today denounced the recent raids on the newsroom and homes of journalists and the editor-in-chief on Belarus’s largest independent news outlet TUT.BY.
IPI renews its calls for an immediate end to the ongoing repression of independent journalism in Belarus and demands the immediate release of the 16 currently imprisoned journalists who have been prosecuted for carrying out their professional duties.
On May 18, agents of the Belarusian Financial Investigation Department (DFR) raided the regional offices of TUT.BY and searched the homes of several of its journalists, including the apartment of Editor-in-Chief Maryna Zolatava, who was taken to the DFR for interrogation.
According to TUT.BY, at least 12 of its employees were arrested throughout the day, among them editors but also an accountant and department managers.
At least five journalists who went to the office in the capital Minsk to cover the events also disappeared. Among them are Artem Mayorov (Belarusy i rynok), Daria Buryakina (TUT.BY), and Alexander Chernukho (Onliner). Their whereabouts are currently unclear. Police have denied having arrested them.
The same day, the website of TUT.BY was also blocked, along with several other websites it hosts. The Belarusian Ministry of Information justified this decision on the grounds of “violations of the Mass Media Act in relation to the publication of prohibited information in a number of publications”.
DFR agents also went to the offices of other media organizations linked to TUT.BY, including hoster.by and av.by. It came after the DFR opened a criminal case against the media outlet for alleged tax evasion.
The regime is destroying independent media and the free press in #Belarus. Security forces came to the apartments of @tutby journalists, including the chief editor Maryna Zolatava. She is one of the bravest and strongest journalists in Belarus. I am fed up with deep concerns pic.twitter.com/NMvfAHNhiA
— Hanna Liubakova (@HannaLiubakova) May 18, 2021
“The latest attack on TUT.BY is an outrageous escalation in the Belarusian government’s attacks on independent media”, IPI Deputy Director Scott Griffen said. “This case is among the clearest yet of the complete contempt that the Lukashenko regime has towards press freedom and its months-long effort to silence TUT.BY and other outlets.
“The politically motivated investigation against TUT.BY and its staff must end immediately, its website should be swiftly unblocked, and all journalists who remain behind bars must be released. International bodies including the OSCE and the Council of Europe cannot let this severe attack on press freedom go unanswered.”
At the end of 2020, TUT.BY, which receives up to 20 million unique daily visitors, was stripped of its status as a media outlet and officials repeatedly threatened to block its activities. The raids follow a decision by authorities to withdraw TUT.BY from a list of tech companies that legally pay a smaller amount of taxes. Immediately afterwards, the DFR accused the portal of paying too little in taxes.
The raids occurred the same day as the planned release of TUT.BY reporter Katsiaryna Barysevich, who had been imprisoned for publishing medical information about the death of a protester that contradicted the official account, as IPI previously reported. The day before, another TUT.BY reporter, Lyubov Kasperovich, was sentenced to 15 days of detention for attending an “unauthorised mass event”.
Attacking the country’s biggest news outlet
“It’s not the first time there have been repressions against TUT.BY”, Belarusian journalist Hanna Liubakova told IPI. “There have been numerous detentions of journalists working for them, and it was deprived of its media status in the end of 2020.”
Liubakova noted that in 2019, Editor-in-Chief Zolatava was charged and eventually fined for allegedly obtaining information illegally. “Afterwards, the regime continued to limit its functioning”, Liubakova said.
“TUT.BY is the biggest and most important media outlet in Belarus, which has given it some extent of protection”, Liubakova said. She described the move as another step toward “Belarus becoming a totalitarian state, where free media does not exist, and an attempt by the regime to show they don’t have any limits, and can even do this to TUT.BY”.
She added of the regime: “It shows that they are not willing to have any dialogue. They don’t feel confident, even more they feel scared, and see that they cannot fight with the discontent in any other way (than by) destroying everything that opposes them.”
“We don’t know what is going to happen next”
“It has never been worse. They do something against journalist almost every day now”, Alina Stefanovich from the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ) told IPI. “Now journalists are just being detained just for being near the protests or covering trials. Being a journalist is a very dangerous profession now in Belarus. It’s getting crazier from day to day.”
The latest attack on TUT.BY happened in a very coordinated manner and targeted the entire news organization, Stefanovich added. “They started searching simultaneously at around 10 homes of TUT.BY journalists”, she said. “People started to call the office, but after nobody picked up the phone some people went there. When they arrived, they saw that the search was also taking place in the office and the glass doors were covered in plastic and blocked from inside. At least four journalists were detained in the office.”
“TUT.by is by far the largest portal in Belarus and everybody knows it. There is no other news portal that is even comparable to it”, Stefanovich explained. “Maybe this [the raid] is to show that this is the end of it. We don’t know what is going to happen next.”
In a statement, the BAJ condemned the attack on TUT.BY, stating that it was a “continuation of the attack on freedom of expression”. BAJ said that references by the authorities to tax violations have been actively used for many years to justify repressive measures against human rights defenders, media and independent trade unions.
“Today’s measures against the country’s largest and most popular source of information are a continuation of the authorities’ deliberate policy to restrict the dissemination of uncensored information in the country”, the organization said.
Calls to defend press freedom
Opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya called on the international community to immediately react to the regime’s crackdown on independent media in Belarus. “This is a planned attack on our journalists & media, and they need legal protection & emergency relocation. It is crucial to help media continue their work”, she said in a tweet.
I call on the international community to immediately react to the regime’s crackdown against independent media in Belarus. This is a planned attack on our journalists & media, and they need legal protection & emergency relocation. It is crucial to help media continue their work. pic.twitter.com/9jZTjdvmi0
— Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya (@Tsihanouskaya) May 18, 2021
On May 17, the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Teresa Ribeiro, condemned the recent detentions of journalists in Belarus. “The way the authorities in Belarus treat media workers remains deeply disturbing and, along with other worrying developments regarding media freedom in the country in recent months, it seriously jeopardizes the fundamental human right to freedom of expression,” Ribeiro said in the statement. “I call on the authorities to stop harassing journalists and release all those imprisoned.”
Persistent crackdown on freedom of expression
In Belarus, at least 16 journalists are currently being held behind bars, according to the latest report by the BAJ. Additionally, at least 480 journalists were arrested in 2020 alone, with at least 62 cases of physical violence against journalists since the beginning of the protests last August.
Recent arrests include Alyaksandr Burakou, who works for Deutsche Welle, and Uladzimer Laptsevich, who were arrested and subsequently sentenced to 20 days in prison. Novy Chas newspaper reporter Dzianis Ivashyn was arrested by the Belarusian security forces on March 12 after his flat was raided, and Belsat TV journalist Katsyaryna Andreyeva and camerawoman Darya Chultsova, were sentenced to two years in prison on February 18 for their coverage of the ongoing anti-government protests.
In April, the Belarusian parliament adopted multiple amendments classifying a number of vaguely defined activities by individuals and organizations that allegedly undermine public order as “extremist”, further restricting freedom of speech.
While press freedom in Belarus was by no means ideal in the last few years, since the protests the situation has deteriorated drastically. Along with journalists, hundreds of protesters have been arrested since August and numerous cases of human rights violations in prisons have been reported.
The Belarusian human rights NGO Viasna counts 377 persons as political prisoners as of May 18. On May 17, a new law was passed by President Lukashenko that allows police and security forces to shoot at demonstrators without legal consequences.
Protests against the government have been taking place in Belarus since the presidential elections on August 9 last year. The current head of government, Alexander Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994, is accused of systemic electoral fraud.