Police patrol a street in Minsk, Belarus, on March 25, 2021. Authorities have recently raided news outlets and press freedom groups, and harassed dozens of journalists across the country. (AP/Belapan)

Belarus police continue newsroom raids, target journalists’ association

Stockholm, July 15, 2021 – Belarusian authorities must cease their raids on independent news outlets and press freedom groups, and refrain from charging or imprisoning journalists over their work, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

Early yesterday morning, Belarusian law enforcement officers raided the Minsk headquarters of the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ), a local advocacy and trade organization, according to news reports and BAJ Deputy Director Aleh Aheyeu, who spoke to CPJ in a phone interview.

Last week, CPJ documented law enforcement raids on at least three news outlets and the arrests of at least seven journalists. Since then, officials have raided the offices of at least four more outlets and harassed more than 20 journalists, according to news reports and information published on BAJ’s website and Telegram channel.

Belarusian authorities have repeatedly cracked down on the press since protests swept the country following Aleksandr Lukashenko’s contested presidential election victory in August, as CPJ has documented. At a meeting with Russian president Vladimir Putin in St. Petersburg on July 13, Lukashenko said authorities were actively pursuing civil society organizations “and so-called Western media,” according to reports.

“The ruthless raids on independent journalists and advocacy groups in Belarus demonstrate that President Aleksandr Lukashenko is intent on completely stifling critical reporting,” said Robert Mahoney, CPJ’s deputy executive director, in New York. “Belarusian authorities must stop this campaign of repression, immediately release all journalists in custody, and cease harassing members of the press.”

Aheyeu told CPJ that a BAJ employee arrived at the association’s office at 10 a.m. yesterday and found a sign posted on the door, which had its lock broken; the sign, from the Interior Ministry, stated that no one was allowed to enter the office.

None of BAJ’s staff have returned to the premises for fear of possible arrest, he said, and authorities have not disclosed any information or reason for the raid. Aheyeu said he did not know if police had seized anything from the office.

Aheyeu added that no representatives from BAJ or the company that owns the building were present during the search, as required by law, and that the association intended to file a complaint to the Belarusian Investigative Committee.

Also yesterday, authorities raided at least 15 other civil society organizations, including the Belarusian PEN center, the local branch of the international free expression organization, according to news reports.

On July 9, law enforcement officers raided the editorial offices of the independent news website Silnie Novosti in the southeastern town of Homel; independent newspaper Hantsavitski Chas, in Hantsavichy; and independent news website Inform-progulka in Luninets, and seized equipment and documents, according to news reports, BAJ, and posts on Telegram by Silnie Novosti.

On that date, law enforcement officers also searched and confiscated equipment and documents from at least 17 journalists and media workers at their homes, according to those sources, including:

  • Pyotr Kuznyatsou, founder and director of Silnie Novosti
  • Hanna Yakshtash, chief editor of Silnie Novosti
  • Irina Volskaya, editor of Silnie Novosti
  • Pavel Kuznyatsou, Natallya Suslava, Yuriy Hlushakou, Katsyaryna Teliman, Alyaksei Shkurau, Sniazhana Pahodzina, and Dzyanis Yaktash, reporters at Silnie Novosti
  • Pavel Doylid, chief editor at the independent news website Pershiy Region
  • Aleh Supruniuk, editor at Pershiy Region
  • Andrei Kukharchik, editor of news website Virtualniy Brest
  • Maksim Klyabets, reporter at the independent news website Natatnik.by
  • Nastasya Zanko, reporter at the independent news website Onliner.by
  • Maryna Mauchana, reporter at the independent news website Bobruyskiy Kurier
  • Anatol Hatouchyts, a freelance journalist

In those raids, police also targeted Yauhenia Kryshchuk, head of advertising at Silnie Novosti, those sources said.

Police questioned Zanko and Supruniuk and released them later the same day, according to these sources. Aheyeu told CPJ that he did not believe any of the other journalists had been detained, and that to his knowledge none of them had been charged with a crime.

On July 13, law enforcement officers searched the editorial office of the news website Mahilyou Region at the home of its chief editor, Zmitser Salauyou, seized computers and other storage media, and summoned Salauyou for questioning the following day, according to the same news reports and information from BAJ.

Officers in Brest also searched the homes of Darya Harashchanka, publisher of the online magazine Binokl; Ksenia Pyatovich, the magazine’s editor; and freelance photographer Volha Latyshava, those sources said.

Authorities took Harashchanka to the Leninskiy District police station for questioning and later released her, and confiscated her phone, according to the same sources. Aheyeu told CPJ that none of the journalists subjected to searches on July 13 have been formally charged with any crime.

Also on July 13, police searched the home of Silnie Novosti accountant Anna Strelchenko, seized equipment and documents, and took her to a local police station for questioning, before releasing her without charge, according to the same sources and Aheyeu. Today, the outlet announced that its website was experiencing technical problems.

Four of the people arrested in the raids that CPJ documented on July 8 – Yahor Martsinovich, chief editor of the independent newspaper Nasha Niva; the outlet’s marketing director, Andrei Skurko; and chief editor of the affiliated publication Nasha Historia, Andrei Dynkol as well as the newspaper’s chief accountant Volha Rakovich — remain in detention, according to BAJ and reports, which said that they are facing charges of organizing or participating in actions grossly violating public order.

Nasha Niva’s editorial team has relocated outside of the country and is continuing to publish online, those reports said.

Security officers allegedly beat Martsinovich during his arrest, giving him a head injury, according to reports, which stated that an ambulance was called to give him medical treatment.

Police previously raided BAJ’s headquarters in February as part of an investigation into alleged violations of public order, as CPJ documented at the time, and Aheyeu said that it was likely that yesterday’s search was part of a similar investigation.

Those convicted of violating order can face up to three years in prison under the Belarusian criminal code. It remains unclear if any of the association’s staff face charges under this article, he said.

Aheyeu described the raid of BAJ’s headquarters as “senseless,” since the authorities already have access to virtually the entirety of the association’s records following the February raid and a June demand from the Justice Ministry to hand over thousands of documents dating back to 2018 for auditing.

Aheyeu told CPJ that the Justice Ministry informed BAJ today that it had been issued with a “warning” as a result of the audit, and that two warnings within the space of a year could lead to the cancellation of the organization’s registration.

Separately, authorities today extended the detention of 15 employees of the independent news website Tut.by, according to reports. Police in Minsk arrested more than a dozen Tut.by staff members in May, in an investigation into alleged tax evasion by the outlet, as CPJ documented at the time.

CPJ emailed the Investigative Committee of Belarus and called and emailed the Ministry of Internal Affairs for comment, but did not immediately receive any replies.

[Editors’ note: After the publication of this article, CPJ received an error message stating that the email seeking comment from the Interior Ministry was not delivered. This article has been updated to reflect that CPJ also called that office for comment.]