New York, April 11, 2019 -- Belarusian authorities should immediately drop their criminal slander investigation of independent online television station Belsat and allow the broadcaster's reporters and staff to work freely, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.
On April 9, officers of the Belarusian Investigative Committee raided the station's offices in Minsk, the capital, and seized laptops and hard drives, according to a report by Belsat, media reports, and Belsat's Minsk-based correspondent, Aleksei Minchonok, who spoke with CPJ.
The officers had a warrant linking the raid to a criminal probe launched in January by the Minsk public prosecutor's office in response to alleged slanderous statements in Belsat's October 2018 reporting about arrests made in a medical-sector corruption case, Minchonok said. Minchonok and several other Belsat correspondents have been questioned by Belarusian authorities in relation to the case since January, the journalist told CPJ.
"Attempts to intimidate Belsat, one of the few alternatives to state-controlled media in Belarus, must stop," said CPJ's Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Gulnoza Said. "Belarusian authorities should drop the criminal probe against the station and allow the public to obtain news from a variety of sources. It's also time for Belarus to scrap criminal slander laws from its books."
Sergei Kabakovich, a spokesperson for the Belarusian Investigative Committee, confirmed with Russian state-funded news agency Sputnik later on April 9 that the raid was tied to the slander investigation.
The Investigative Committee did not respond to CPJ's emailed request for comment.
Minchonok told CPJ that he and cameraman Aleksandr Lyubenchuk and correspondents Irina Slavnikova and Ales Zalevski have been interrogated as witnesses in the case, and that they could potentially be charged with slander. If found guilty, the journalists could face up to three years in prison, according to the country's criminal code.
The director of Belsat's Minsk office, Nikolai Debyolo, said in a statement to the broadcaster that the raid was aimed at limiting Belsat's work, and that authorities are "cleansing the information space."
Belsat is headquartered in neighboring Poland, according to its website. Its Minsk offices were raided by authorities in 2017, and its staff have faced legal persecution and police beatings in the past few years, according to CPJ reporting.