Kiev, August 8, 2018--Belarusian authorities should immediately release detained journalists and stop harassing independent media outlets, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. Police raided the Minsk offices of at least three independent Belarusian news outlets and detained at least 17 journalists yesterday and today, accusing them of unlawfully obtaining information from a state news agency, according to media reports and authorities. At least seven journalists remained in detention today, according to the Belarusian Association of Journalists.
"Raiding newsrooms, detaining reporters, searching their apartments, and seizing their equipment is a clear sign of government's crackdown on independent reporting, whatever the pretense," said CPJ's Europe and Central Asia research associate, Gulnoza Said. "Belarusian authorities should immediately release all the journalists detained and stop harassing independent media."
The Belarusian Investigative Committee said in a statement published on its website yesterday that journalists at the Minsk offices of independent news website Tut.by, independent news agency BelaPan and academic newspaper Nauka (published by the Belarusskaya Nauka publishing house) had used accounts and passwords that did not belong to them to access the paid subscriber section of BelTA's website. The state-owned BelTA often reports favorably and uncritically of President Aleksandr Lukashenko.
Authorities accuse the journalists of illegally obtaining information from BelTA, a criminal offense punishable by a fine, a ban from certain professions, arrest, or up to two years of house arrest or prison time, The New York Times reported.
Tut.by, one of Belarus's largest online news outlets, reported today that six of its journalists, Halina Ulasik, Maryna Zolatava, Hanna Kaltyhina, Ulyana Babayed, Dzmitry Bobryk, Hanna Yermachonak, along with two BelaPAN editors, Tatsyana Karavyankova and Andrey Serada, had been detained over the past 24 hours. Yesterday, Tut.by said police officers had presented a warrant to search its offices and those of BelaPan; blocked journalists' access to the offices; and seized several documents.
Bobryk, Serada and Babayed were released, but the rest of the journalists will have to spend 72 hours behind bars as the investigation continues, according to Tut.by and a second statement by the Investigative Committee issued today.
The Investigative Committee also said in today's statement that it had detained former editor of Selska Haspadarka magazine Alexey Zhukov and Deutsche Welle correspondent Pavlyuk Bykovsky on suspicion of committing similar unlawful acts.
Also today, Belarusian police raided the office of Realt.by, a real-estate news website, Tut.by reported citing the Belarusian Association of Journalists. Tut.by said the Investigative Committee directed the search and seized computers and laptops.
The Times said that at least five apartments belonging to journalists, including Deutsche Welle's Bykovsky, were also searched as part of the authorities' operation. Deutsche Welle cited Bykovsky's wife, Olga Bykovskaya, as saying investigators took equipment including computers, tablets, phones, flash drives, external portable disks, and bank cards.
In yesterday's statement, the committee said it had opened a criminal inquiry after an Interior Ministry investigation, which uncovered "15,000 cases of unauthorized access" to BelTA's exclusive section. That section of BelTA's website does not host sensitive information but publishes breaking news five to 10 minutes before it hits the agency's public wire, according to CPJ's investigation of the site.
The committee claimed that "the crime inflicted considerable damage, leading to the illegal procurement and use of information protected from unauthorized access, as well as to the erosion of the enterprise's business reputation."
The Investigative Committee did not respond to CPJ's emailed inquiries on the raids and arrests.
The spokesperson for the Belarusian Foreign Ministry, Anatoliy Glaz, denied political reasons were behind the raids and arrests. "The situation does not lie in political dimension and has nothing to do with freedom of speech or journalists' activities in Belarus," he was quoted as saying by Russian state agency RIA Novosti.
The raids and detentions come amid a crackdown by Belarusian authorities against independent news outlets that report critically on authorities. In June, Belarus's parliament passed amendments to the country's media laws that they said were necessary to combat "fake news." CPJ said the amendments are likely to lead to further censorship of the press in Belarus.