Stockholm, August 18, 2021 – Belarusian authorities should immediately release all detained current and former employees of the BelaPAN news agency and allow the country’s independent press to work freely, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.
This morning, law enforcement officers in Minsk, the capital, searched the editorial offices of the independent Belarusian news agency as well as the homes of six of its current and former employees, according to multiple news reports, reporting by the BelaPAN-affiliated news website Naviny.by, and BelaPAN correspondent Tanya Korovenkova, who spoke to CPJ in a phone interview.
Police detained five people, released two after they signed nondisclosure agreements, and are continuing to hold BelaPAN director and chief editor Iryna Leushyna, the agency’s former director Dzmitry Navazhilau, and accountant Katsyaryna Boeva at the Akrestsina Detention Facility in Minsk, according to Korovenkova and a report by Naviny.by, a sister news organization owned by BelaPAN’s parent company.
Korovenkova said that the three are technically being held under a 72-hour detention order, but she suspected their detentions would be extended.
Police also confiscated BelaPAN’s servers today, taking the agency’s website offline, according to those news reports and Korovenkova. BelaPAN is the country’s oldest independent news agency, according to reports.
“Belarusian authorities must release BelaPAN director Iryna Leushyna, former director Dzmitry Navazhilau, and accountant Katsyaryna Boeva immediately and unconditionally,” said CPJ Program Director Carlos Martínez de la Serna, in New York. “Authorities’ intensifying crackdown on the press shows that the Belarusian government will only be satisfied when there are no independent voices left in the country.”
Authorities began their searches of BelaPAN employees’ homes at about 7 a.m. today, Korovenkova told CPJ.
Officers from the Investigative Committee and the Interior Ministry’s Department for Combating Economic Crimes searched the homes of Leushyna, Navazhilau, and Boeva; BelaPAN correspondents Zakhar Shcharbakov and Iryna Turchyna; and BelaPAN deputy chief editor and Naviny.by editor Aliaksandar Zaitsau, according to Korovenkova and multiple reports by Naviny.by.
Officers brought Leushyna to BelaPAN’s editorial office, which they also searched, according to Naviny.by and Korovenkova. They then questioned her at the headquarters of the Belarusian Investigative Committee in Minsk before sending her to the detention center, according to those sources.
Korovenkova said she did not know whether authorities confiscated anything from the editorial office or if it has been sealed, saying that BelaPAN’s staff have not visited the office today for fear of arrest. Naviny.by has since reported that the editorial office’s server was confiscated during the search.
Officers confiscated Shcharbakov’s laptop, cellphone, and flash drives during their raid, according to Naviny.by and Korovenkova. They took the journalist to the office of state telecommunications company Beltelecom, where they confiscated another BelaPAN server; they then questioned Shcharbakov at the Investigative Committee headquarters and released him after he signed a nondisclosure agreement, according to those sources.
Officers also confiscated Turchyna’s computer, cellphone, flash drives, recorder, and notebooks, according to Naviny.by and Korovenkova. Investigative Committee officers questioned her at their headquarters as a witness in a criminal public order case concerning other BelaPAN staffers for around two hours before releasing her, also after signing a nondisclosure agreement, those sources said.
Officers confiscated Zaitsau’s cellphone, tablet, and a hard drive; they did not detain him, but made him sign an agreement to attend questioning at a future date without explaining whether he was a suspect in an ongoing criminal investigation, according to Korovenkova and Naviny.by.
This afternoon, the Investigative Committee of Belarus announced on Telegram that Leushyna, Boeva, and Navazhilau had been arrested on suspicion of organizing or participating in gross violations of public order under Article 342, Part 1, of the country’s criminal code. If convicted, they could face up to four years in prison under that law.
The statement also accused BelaPAN employees of evading an unspecified amount in taxes. Depending on the sum involved, tax evasion can be punishable by up to 12 years in prison, according to the criminal code.
CPJ emailed the Belarusian Investigative Committee and called and emailed the Ministry of Internal Affairs for comment, but did not receive any replies.
In a statement published this evening on Naviny.by, BelaPAN stated that several of its staffers are in safety outside of Belarus and plan to continue the agency’s work.
In recent months, Belarusian authorities have launched a wave of raids and arrests against the country’s independent press, and have repeatedly accused outlets of tax evasion and public order violations in retaliation for their coverage of anti-government protests, as CPJ has documented.
Authorities previously raided BelaPAN’s offices in January in connection with investigations into former deputy director Andrei Aliaksandrau, according to news reports; Aliaksandrau was charged with treason in June, as CPJ documented.
[Editor’s note: The spelling of Iryna Turchyna’s name has been corrected in the eighth and 12th paragraphs. Also, 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.]