Vilnius, Lithuania, May 18, 2021 — Belarusian authorities must allow the independent news website Tut.by to work freely, and should immediately and unconditionally release all of its employees in custody, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.
Today, officers of the Belarus Financial Investigation Department raided Tut.by’s headquarters in Minsk, the capital, its regional offices in the western cities of Brest and Hrodna, and the homes of several of its journalists and detained at least three of them, according to news reports. The Financial Investigation Department wrote on its website that the searches were part of an investigation into suspected tax evasion.
The outlet’s website is currently offline, as are several websites affiliated with Tut.by, according to reports. The Ministry of Information said it blocked the site for posting prohibited information and for collaborating with an unregistered human rights group.
“Since at least two government entities cited different reasons for raiding and blocking Tut.by and detaining its journalists, it’s clear that authorities’ only real motive is to censor Belarus’ premier independent news website out of fear of its reporting,” said Gulnoza Said, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator, in New York. “Authorities must release all Tut.by employees immediately and without charge, and should allow the outlet to work freely.”
Following the searches of their apartments, authorities detained Tut.by editor-in-chief Maryna Zolatava, business reporter Elena Tolkacheva, and Darya Danilova, director of the startup RocketData and the head of an unspecified project affiliated with Tut.by, according to news reports and a statement by RocketData. Authorities seized reporting equipment and other belongings during the raid on Zolatava’s apartment, those reports said.
CPJ called Tut.by’s office and several of its journalists for comment, but no one answered.
An unnamed official told the independent news website Onliner.by that authorities alleged the company failed to pay value-added taxes in 2020. Since the raid, authorities have covered windows in the outlet’s headquarters with black film to block observers from seeing inside, reports said.
Tax evasion is punishable up to seven years in prison and fines, according to the Belarusian criminal code.
In a statement posted on its website, the Ministry of Information wrote that it had restricted internet access to Tut.by because the prosecutor’s office had “established that Tut.by has multiple times violated the Mass Media law and was posting prohibited information.” The ministry also alleged that Tut.by collaborated with the BYSOL foundation, an unregistered human rights group.
CPJ called the Financial Investigation Department and Ministry of Information for comment, but no one answered.
Volha Khvoin, head of analysis and information services at the Belarusian Association of Journalists, a local advocacy and trade organization, told CPJ by phone that the association was working to determine if any additional journalists had been detained today.
She said it was “clear that the authorities want to kill Tut.by by all means, as it is the most popular media resource in the country, which intensively covers the protests and violations of human rights in Belarus.”
In a Telegram post, Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya condemned the raid on Tut.by and accused Belarusian authorities of seeking to “kill media, kill political parties and civic communities.”
The EU delegation to Belarus wrote on its Facebook account that Tut.by is a “flagship of Belarusian journalism” and that “freedom of the media must be upheld.”