Stockholm, September 9, 2021 – Belarus authorities must cease their persecution of independent journalists and outlets who have covered the protest movement against President Aleksandr Lukashenko’s contested reelection or are otherwise critical of the government, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.
Last week, authorities in Belarus charged Iryna Leushyna, the director of the country’s largest independent news agency BelaPAN, and the agency’s former director Dzmitry Navazhylau with large-scale tax evasion, according to a September 7 report by BelaPAN-owned news site Naviny.by.
BelaPAN correspondent Tanya Korovenkova, who spoke to CPJ by messaging app, confirmed the report, which did not say the exact date of the charge.
If convicted on these charges, Leushyna and Navazhylau will face between three and seven years in prison or five years of restrictions on freedom of movement depending on the court’s discretion under the criminal code of Belarus.
The two are currently in prison after they were arrested on August 18 during a raid on BelaPAN, as CPJ documented at the time. An initial statement posted on Telegram by the Belarusian Investigative Committee said that they were arrested for organizing or participating in public order violations in relation to last year’s protests, but CPJ was unable to determine if they have been charged.
Separately, over the past 10 days, authorities in Belarus have searched the homes of at least four journalists at two other outlets, detained two journalists and convicted them of administrative offenses, and brought criminal charges against the chief editor of a local news site, according to news reports.
“The latest raids, detentions, and spurious charges against independent journalists in Belarus demonstrate once again how authorities’ alleged ‘investigations’ into last year’s mass protests against President Aleksandr Lukashenko’s disputed election victory have become a pretext to silence any media organization that dared to cover the protests,” said Gulnoza Said, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia Program coordinator, in New York. “Authorities in Belarus must immediately release Iryna Leushyna and Dzimitry Navazhylau, drop all charges against them and other journalists recently subjected to searches and detention, and once and for all stop abusing the law to stifle independent reporting.”
CPJ called the Interior Ministry, the Office of the Prosecutor-General, and the Investigative Committee of Belarus for confirmation of the charges against Leushyna and Navazhylau, but the calls either did not connect or went unanswered.
CPJ has also documented recent press freedom violations at the following Belarusian outlets:
Since August 31, authorities in Belarus have raided the homes of three current and former staff members at the independent sports news website Tribuna, including the outlet’s director Maksim Berazinski, and sentenced the website’s former correspondent Andrei Maslovski to 15 days in administrative detention, according to news reports and Berazinski, who spoke to CPJ in a telephone interview. Berazinski said the sports site often runs athletes’ unvarnished political opinions and has been critical of the government.
Berazinski told CPJ that police searched his apartment on September 1 on the orders of the Investigative Committee of Belarus as part of investigations into last year’s protests. He said that he currently resides abroad and has not lived at that address for a year, and police were therefore only able to confiscate an old computer and old USB flash drives. Officers told his mother, who later arrived at the scene, that they would inspect the confiscated objects before deciding on Berazinski’s status in the investigation, he said.
Police searched the home of Maslovski, who left Tribuna in July this year and currently works for the independent sports news site Sportarena, on the morning of September 6, according to news reports. Berazinski told CPJ that Maslovski was not at home at the time but complied with a telephone summons to report to the Interior Ministry’s organized crime and corruption department later that day. Berazinski said police then detained Maslovski and transferred him to the Akrestsin detention center in Minsk.
Yesterday, the Central district court in Minsk sentenced Maslovski to 15 days of administrative arrest on charges of distributing materials banned as extremist, according to a report by Tribuna and Berazinski.
Tribuna reporter Aliaksandr Ivulin was arrested at the start of June and charged in July with organizing or participating in actions grossly violating public order and remains in detention awaiting trial, according to Berazinski and the Belarusian Association of Journalists. Independent news website Charter 97 said authorities were “taking revenge” on the journalist, whose sports-focused YouTube blog has been critical of the government. If convicted, Ivulin could face up to four years in prison, according to the criminal code.
Tribuna has been blocked by the Belarusian Ministry of Information since August 9, 2020, following the outbreak of the protests, Berazinski told CPJ. Last month, a court banned Tribuna’s website and social media accounts as “extremist,” as CPJ documented at the time.
CPJ called the Interior Ministry and the Investigative Committee for comment on the actions against Tribuna and its journalists but the calls were not answered. CPJ emailed the Investigative Committee but did not receive a reply.
On September 7, the Interior Ministry of Belarus announced on Telegram that Andrei Kukharchyk, chief editor of independent news site Virtualniy Brest, which covers the Brest region in southwestern Belarus, was charged with criminal insult of a state official. If convicted, Kukharchyk faces up to three years in prison, according to the criminal code of Belarus.
In its announcement, the ministry accused Kukharchyk of engaging in “destructive protest activities” by creating a Telegram chat group, declared extremist by a Brest city court in July, where he allegedly “distributed extremist materials and published insults” against parliamentary deputies.
Kukharchyk told CPJ by messaging app that he was unable to comment on the case.
Authorities previously raided Kukharchyk’s apartment on February 26 this year in connection with investigations into public order offenses, according to reports, and again on July 9, as CPJ documented at the time.
On August 20, a court fined Kukharchyk 290 Belarusian rubles (US$116) for alleged distribution of extremist materials after Virtualniy Brest published an image of a man allegedly wearing a shirt featuring a swastika, according to the Belarusian Association of Journalists.
Virtualniy Brest was among dozens of news sites blocked in August 2020, as CPJ documented, for allegedly disseminating banned information, according to a report by the Belarusian Association of Journalists. The website is still blocked but is now accessible in Belarus with a Russian domain, Kukharchyk said.
CPJ called the Interior Ministry and the Investigative Committee for comment on Kukharchyk’s case but the calls were not answered. CPJ emailed the Investigative Committee but did not receive a reply.
On September 3, law enforcement officers in Minsk broke down the doors of the apartment of Yanina Melnikava, chief editor of the independent environmental news website Green Portal, and confiscated her laptop and cell phone and her husband’s computer hard disk, according to reports by Green Portal and the outlet’s deputy editor Hanna Valynets, who spoke to CPJ by messaging app.
According Valynets, police took Melnikava to Investigative Committee headquarters for questioning in relation to a criminal investigation, though she was unable to provide details on whether Melnikava was the one under investigation.
Police then transferred Melnikava to Partyzanski district police station in Minsk, where they accused her of refusing to get out of the police vehicle, waving her arms, and attempting to escape. Due to her alleged behavior a court fined her 2,755 rubles (US$1,093) for failure to comply with police orders, according to a report by the Belarusian Association of Journalists.
Following this, she was detained at Akrestsin detention center over the weekend and released September 6 after 72 hours in custody, BAJ reported.
Green Portal frequently criticizes authorities both on environmental topics and for recent repressive measures against environmental activists and NGOs, according to a CPJ review of the outlet’s website and social media accounts.
CPJ called the Interior Ministry and the Investigative Committee for comment on Melnikava’s case but the calls went unanswered. CPJ emailed the Investigative Committee but did not receive a reply.
The Brest region prosecutor’s office announced September 7 that it had ordered the independent regional news site Media-Polesye to be blocked for six months for publishing photos and videos from internet sites previously declared extremist and linking to these sites, and for publishing videos “which clearly negatively characterize the socio-political situation in the country since the end of the election campaign and discredit the activities of state and law enforcement agencies.”
In July, authorities raided the outlet’s office and the homes of editor Sviatlana Harda and other senior employees and confiscated equipment, according to the outlet’s Telegram channel.
CPJ called the Interior Ministry for comment but the calls were not answered.