Belarusian police raid news offices in defamation probe

New York, March 16, 2010—The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns raids conducted today by Minsk police at the offices of the independent news Web site Charter 97, the independent newspaper Narodnaya Volya, and the home office of freelance reporter Irina Khalip.

Masked officers with the Leninsky District Police Department in Minsk confiscated computers, equipment, and electronic documents at the three locations as part of a criminal defamation investigation, according to local journalists. Charter 97 Editor Natalya Radina told CPJ that she was punched by a police officer during the raid at her office.

Search warrants, issued by the regional prosecutor in the southeastern city of Gomel, said police were investigating allegations that news media had defamed the Gomel regional head of the security service, or KGB, Khalip told CPJ.

The case apparently stems from an August 2009 public letter addressed to the European Parliament and signed by relatives of several Gomel police officers convicted of corruption. In the letter, carried by several opposition Web sites, the relatives accused regional KGB head Ivan Korzh of fabricating the case against the officers. Korzh later won damages from the letter’s authors in a civil lawsuit, news reports said.

The basis of the new, criminal investigation was not clear. Neither Narodnaya Volya nor Charter 97 published the letter. The two outlets and Khalip all reported on the underlying corruption case, a widely publicized affair that pitted Belarusian law enforcement agencies against one another.

“In don’t know what this is connected with. I think that the case of the insulted general [Korzh] has become a means of intimidating journalists so that no one ever writes about the government and the KGB,” Narodnaya Volya quoted its deputy editor, Svetlana Kalinkina, as saying.

The full extent of today’s raids was also not immediately clear. Kalinkina, a 2004 recipient of CPJ’s International Press Freedom Award, said one other news outlet may have been subjected to a search. No journalist has been charged in the case as yet, Khalip told CPJ.

“We are outraged by the Minsk police actions and call for the immediate return of all equipment confiscated from the premises of Charter 97 and Narodnaya Volya, and from Irina Khalip’s home office,” CPJ Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Nina Ognianova said. “Belarusian authorities must drop the criminal probe into alleged defamation.”

Radina described a tense situation today as at least 10 officers raided the offices of her online publication. She told CPJ that one officer punched her in the face as he tried to force his way into the office.

She said the officers collected passport information from all Charter 97 staffers and refused to allow the publication’s lawyers to observe the search. The officers told Radina that the seized computers will be held and examined for at least a month. In the meantime, Radina said her staff will seek alternative ways to update the news site. “Of course, we will look for possibilities to continue publishing the site,” Radina told CPJ. “But the harassment against us is ongoing—we are being followed and placed under surveillance.”