Stockholm, August 16, 2021 – Belarus authorities should refrain from contesting the appeal of news website Zerkalo.io against its designation as “extremist,” and cease using the country’s anti-extremism laws to stifle independent reporting, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.
On May 18, authorities raided the offices of the independent news website Tut.by, interrogated about 130 members of its staff, blocked the outlet’s website, and detained 15 of its employees and associates for suspected tax evasion, according to CPJ reporting from the time and Anna Kaltygina, former news desk manager at Tut.by, who spoke to CPJ in a phone interview.
Several of the outlet’s employees fled Belarus, and on July 8 launched Zerkalo.io as a temporary replacement for Tut.by, according to Kaltygina, who now works as the acting editor-in-chief of Zerkalo.io. Belarus authorities blocked access to the website within the country immediately after its launch, according to Zerkalo.io.
On August 13, the Central District Court in Minsk, the capital, granted an application from the Ministry of Internal Affairs to declare all content published by Tut.by and Zerkalo.io as “extremist,” thereby banning both outlets, according to news reports, a statement by the Minsk City Court press service, and Kaltygina.
“Belarus authorities’ insistence on banning Tut.by, one of the country’s most popular news sources, and its successor Zerkalo.io is emblematic of the government’s brutal drive to obliterate the independent press,” said CPJ Program Director Carlos Martínez de la Serna, in New York. “Authorities should walk back the unjust designations of the sites as ‘extremist,’ and allow them to work freely.”
The Ministry of Information will list Tut.by and Zerkalo.io’s websites, social media profiles, and logos on the government’s Republican List of Extremist Materials, the court statement said.
Once the outlets are added to that list, anyone convicted of producing, storing, or spreading any materials from the websites can be subject to a fine of up to 870 rubles (US$349) or detention for up to 15 days, according to the administrative code of Belarus. Legal entities will be subject to a fine of up to 14,500 rubles (US$5,813) for the same offenses.
In a statement released following the court’s decision, Zerkalo.io called the decision “unlawful” and “an attempt to erase history,” and vowed to appeal it.
Kaltygina described Tut.by as Belarus’s largest and most popular news website, with a staff of about 260; the site averaged about 300 million visits a month before the police raid on its offices, according to data shared with CPJ by Kaltygina.
Kaltygina told CPJ that Zerkalo.io staff see the designation as a sign that they are doing a good job, and said they plan to continue working as normal and hope to one day be able to reestablish Tut.by in Belarus.
In an August 13 statement on Telegram, Interior Ministry spokesperson Olga Chemodanova stated that an expert commission had concluded the sites and their social media accounts functioned as “an arena for the propaganda of extremist activity, aimed at stoking social discord or strife, organizing and staging mass disturbances, and inciting political and ideological discord.”
Zerkalo.io has covered the mass protests against Belarus President Aleksandr Lukashenko’s government, which began last August, and has reported on trials of individuals arrested during the demonstrations.
CPJ called and emailed the Interior Ministry of Belarus for comment, but did not receive any reply.
[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.]