Police patrol a street in Minsk, Belarus, on March 27, 2021. Authorities have recently detained more than a dozen employees of the independent news website Tut.by. (AP/BelaPan)

Belarusian authorities briefly detain 4 Tut.by journalists; at least 13 staff remain in custody

New York, May 25, 2021 – Belarusian authorities should immediately and unconditionally release all employees of the independent news website Tut.by who remain in custody, and cease harassing the outlet’s employees, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

Today, police in Minsk, the capital, arrested Tut.by reporters Anastasiya Prudnikava and Dzianis Burkouski, and social media editors Maksim Pushkin and Ala Burkouskaya, according to news reports and Barys Haretski, deputy head of the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ), a local advocacy and trade group, who spoke with CPJ in a phone interview.

Officers took the four to the Department of Financial Investigation and released them this evening, according to those sources.

Aliaksandra Pushkina, Tut.by’s public relations manager, told CPJ in a phone interview that she did not know anything about what happened to the journalists while they were in custody, or whether they have been charged with crimes, because they all signed nondisclosure agreements upon their release and were unable to tell her such details. She added that the journalists did not have access to a lawyer during their detentions.

At least 13 other Tut.by employees remain in detention following authorities’ crackdown on the outlet on May 18 as part of an investigation into alleged tax evasion, according to CPJ reporting, news reports, BAJ’s database of detained journalists, and Pushkina.

Pushkina said she expected authorities to announce formal charges in the detainees’ cases on May 28 or else release them, citing the country’s 10-day limit for detentions without charge in criminal cases.

“Belarusian authorities should immediately release all employees of the Tut.by news website, drop any charges against them, return any seized equipment, and once and for all cease their relentless persecution of members of the press,” said Gulnoza Said, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator. “Authorities’ continued detentions of Tut.by journalists and staff are clearly aimed at finishing off the outlet after it was decapitated with mass arrests last week. But the more the government tries to threaten journalists into silence, the more such injustices will be exposed.”

Police raided Prudnikava’s apartment at about 11 a.m. today, confiscated her computer and phones, and detained her, according to news reports and Haretski. She was released shortly before 5 p.m. after signing a nondisclosure agreement, according to those reports.

At about 11:30, colleagues and friends lost contact with Pushkin, Burkouski, and Burkouskaya, who had been detained and taken to the Department of Financial Investigation, according to those sources, which said that all three were released after signing nondisclosure agreements. Police also confiscated unspecified equipment from the journalists, according to those reports.

Due to the nondisclosure agreements, CPJ was unable to determine whether their equipment had been returned to them.

Since May 18, authorities have detained at least 13 other employees of Tut.by, including:

  • Liudmila Chekina, CEO
  • Iryna Rybalka, deputy CEO
  • Maryna Zolatava, chief editor
  • Elena Tolkacheva, business reporter
  • Darya Danilova, director of the startup RocketData, who was working on a project for Tut.by
  • Volha Loika, chief politics and economics editor
  • At least seven non-journalistic employees, including lawyers, accountants, and technical staff

Pushkina told CPJ that she did not know if the detainees were suspects or witnesses in an investigation, or whether any had been criminally charged, citing their nondisclosure agreements.

Rybalka, Zolatava, Tolkacheva, and Loika are being held in Valadarskaga detention center in Minsk; Danilova in a K.G.B. detention center, and Checkina in the Akrestsina detention center in Minsk, according to research published by Tut.by and Pushkina, who said that the non-journalist employees are being held in several different detention centers and that some are under house arrest.

CPJ called Volha Chemadanova, head of the press office of the Belarusian Ministry of Interior, for comment, but she did not answer the phone. CPJ also emailed the Department of Financial Investigation for comment but did not receive any response.