New York, March 15, 2017--Russian authorities should immediately release Yuriy Baranchik, chief analytical editor of the pro-Kremlin Russian news agency Regnum, and allow him to work unobstructed, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.
Security forces arrested Baranchik, a Belarusian citizen, in his Moscow apartment today at the request of the Belarus authorities, according to Russian and Belarusian news reports. If extradited and convicted, the journalist faces a maximum sentence of 12 years in prison on charges of "inciting ethnic hatred," the reports said. Regnum reported that Baranchik had asked Russia to grant him political asylum following his arrest.
In a statement published on its website today, Belarus' Investigative Committee, a law-enforcement agency, confirmed Baranchik's arrest in Moscow and accused him of having commissioned and paid for articles by Regnum contributors Sergey Shiptenko, Yuriy Pavlovets, and Dmitry Alimkin, whom Belarusian security forces arrested in December 2016 on similar charges. The journalists, whom the Investigative Committee called a "criminal gang," were also critical of Lukashenko's policies. They are jailed in Belarus pending the conclusion of the investigation, according to media reports.
Belarusian state media today claimed that Baranchik, Shiptenko, Pavlovets, and Alimkin "denied in an insulting manner that Belarus is a sovereign state, that Belarusian is a national language," and that they had "tried to create aggression toward the Russian diaspora."
"Yuriy Baranchik's only 'crime' is to have reported critically on the administration of one of the most authoritarian countries in Europe," CPJ Deputy Executive Director Robert Mahoney said. "Russian authorities should release him immediately and refuse to send him back to Belarus where he would face unjust imprisonment."
Modest Kolerov, Regnum's editor-in-chief, called the accusations against Baranchik "unscrupulous and far-fetched" and the case "politically motivated" in an article published by Regnum's website today. Following the December arrest of the three Regnum contributors, Kolerov called the journalists "political prisoners."
Lukashenko's wide-ranging anti-press tactics have included broad legal restrictions on the press; politicized prosecution of journalists; imprisonments; travel bans against critical reporters; debilitating raids on independent newsrooms; and the wholesale confiscation of newspapers and seizure of reporting equipment.