Kiev, February 12, 2019--The Committee to Protect Journalists called on Belarusian authorities to end their harassment of Maryna Zolatava, editor-in-chief of the country's largest independent news website, Tut.by. Zolatava appeared in court in Minsk today on charges of illegally accessing part of a state-owned news outlet's website and "official inaction," a charge comparable to negligence, according to reports.
The charges relate to a raid on Tut.by's offices in Minsk in August as part of an investigation into whether the editor and several other employees had accessed the paid subscriber section of the state-owned news website BelTA, CPJ reported at the time. Zolatava was briefly detained during the raid. Authorities claimed that Tut.by and at least two other news outlets used accounts and passwords that did not belong to them to access the website, according to reports.
"Belarusian authorities should immediately drop all charges against Maryna Zolatava and stop harassing the country's independent media," said CPJ Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Gulnoza Said in New York. "The raid on Tut.by and criminal charges brought against Zolatava show Belarus is looking for excuses to intimidate and persecute independent and critical media."
BelTA General Director Irina Akulovich told prosecutors at today's hearing that she wanted a criminal prosecution, Tut.by reported. The date of the next hearing has not been scheduled.
Zolatava is one of 15 journalists who faced charges following the police raid in August on Tut.by, the independent news agency BelaPan, and academic newspaper Nauka, according to reports. Charges against the other 14 were dropped after the journalists paid administrative fines and damages, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported.
Belarus's Investigative Committee said in August 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." Prosecutors said the unauthorized access caused losses of roughly 70,000 Belarusian rubles (US$32,000) to BelTA, according to Tut.by.
Zolatava's case raises concerns of growing press restrictions under Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko, who has been president since 1994. CPJ has documented how Lukashenko's government has restricted independent media, including through amendments to media laws that may lead to further censorship.