New York, July 8, 2021 – Belarusian authorities must release all journalists held in custody for their work and drop all investigations into independent news outlets, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.
Starting this morning, authorities raided at least three news outlets and arrested at least seven journalists nationwide amid a crackdown on the independent media, according to news reports, social media posts, and Barys Haretski, deputy director of the Belarusian Association of Journalists, a trade and advocacy group, who spoke with CPJ in a phone interview.
Belarusian authorities have repeatedly arrested, jailed, and harassed journalists since protests broke out nationwide last year following a contested August election in which longstanding leader Aleksandr Lukashenko claimed victory, as CPJ has documented.
“Today’s raids mark a significant escalation in Belarusian President Lukashenko’s war on the independent press,” said Robert Mahoney, CPJ’s deputy executive director. “The president has calculated that he can only stay in power by silencing critical voices and keeping Belarusian citizens in the dark.”
This morning, officers from the Ministry of Internal Affairs raided the office of the independent news website Nasha Niva in Minsk, the capital, according to multiple news reports, social media posts, and Haretski. Officers also raided the apartments of Nasha Niva chief editor Yahor Martsinovich, editor Andrey Skurko, and Andrey Dynko, chief editor of Nasha Niva’s magazine Nasha Istoriya, and transferred the three journalists to a temporary detention center in Minsk, according to those sources.
Authorities are investigating the three for allegedly “organizing or preparing acts that violate public order” and “mass riots,” according to those reports and Haretski, who said that the officers interrogated the three journalists at the local office of the Investigative Committee state security body before transferring them to detention.
Martsinovich fell ill during the interrogation and officers called an ambulance for him; he was treated and then the interrogation continued, according to reports and Haretski.
CPJ could not immediately determine whether authorities confiscated anything during the raids, or whether the journalists have been formally charged.
Also this morning, the Belarusian Ministry of Information blocked Nasha Niva’s website, and the ministry posted a statement saying that prosecutors accused the outlet of distributing unlawful information.
Also today, agents of the Belarusian security service, known as the KGB, raided the offices of the independent news websites Brestskaya Gazeta in the western city of Brest and Intex-Press in the western city of Baranovichi, according to reports and Haretski. CPJ could not immediately determine the basis of those raids or whether anyone was arrested.
Law enforcement officers today also searched the apartments of Alesia Latsinskaya, correspondent for the independent news website Bobr.by in the eastern city of Babruysk, and Zmitser Kazakevich and Vitaly Skryl, both freelance correspondents for the independent broadcaster Belsat TV in the eastern city Vitsebsk, according to news reports and Haretski.
Haretski told CPJ that Skryl was arrested for allegedly “insulting a government official” and is currently in a detention center in Vitsebsk.
Kazakevich was not home at the time and was not detained, according to those sources. News reports said that officers raided his home for about three hours in relation to a slander case, and confiscated notebooks, two cameras, and a small red-and-white flag.
Police briefly held Latsinskaya and then released her after she signed a non-disclosure agreement stating she would not speak about her case, according to reports. CPJ was unable to determine the reason for her arrest.
Law enforcement officers also detained Zmitser Lupach, a freelance Belsat TV correspondent, while he was being treated at a medical facility in the eastern city of Plisa today, according to reports and Haretski. Authorities also raided his apartment, those reports said. CPJ could not immediately determine why Lupach was arrested or where he was being held.
Also today, law enforcement officers searched the apartment of Ihar Kazmierczak, a correspondent with the independent news website Orsha.eu, in the eastern city of Orsha, according to reports and Haretski, who said that, following the raid, officers arrested Kazmierczak for alleged property damage.
Previously, on July 6, police in Brest arrested Aleh Suprunyuk, editor of the independent news website Pershiy Region, for alleged “distribution of extremist materials,” according to news reports, which said he was released the same day pending trial.
Separately, yesterday a Minsk court upheld a prior decision to recognize materials published by the independent news website Tut.by as “extremist,” according to reports. At least 13 Tut.by employees remain in custody after police arrested them in May for alleged tax evasion, as CPJ reported at the time.
CPJ emailed the Belarusian Investigative Committee, the Ministry of Information, and the Ministry of Internal Affairs for comments, but did not immediately receive any responses.