Paris, March 17, 2023 — Belarusian authorities should immediately release journalists Maryna Zolatava and Valeryia Kastsiuhova, drop all charges against them, and stop imprisoning members of the press for their work, the Committee to Protect Journalists said Friday.
On Friday, March 17, a court in the capital city of Minsk convicted Zolatava of incitement to hatred and distributing materials calling for actions aimed at harming national security, and sentenced her to 12 years in prison, according to media reports and the Belarusian Association of Journalists, an advocacy and trade group operating from exile.
Zolatava, chief editor of independent news website Tut.by, was also charged with tax evasion, but that charge was later dropped, according to those sources and Aliaksandra Pushkina, director of communications for the Tut.by affiliate Zerkalo.io, who spoke to CPJ via messaging app.
Also on Friday, the same court convicted Kastsiuhova, the founder and editor of independent analysis and opinion website Nashe Mneniye, of conspiring to seize state power, calling for actions aimed at harming national security, and incitement to hatred, and sentenced her to 10 years in prison, according to media reports, BAJ, and Viasna, a banned Belarusian human rights group.
“The outrageous prison terms handed to Belarusian journalists Maryna Zolatava and Valeryia Kastsiuhova only serve to highlight the downward spiral of cruelty seen throughout Aleksandr Lukashenko’s regime,” said Gulnoza Said, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator, in New York. “Authorities should immediately release Zolatava and Kastsiuhova, along with all other jailed members of the press, and let the media work freely.”
Zolatava, who has been held since May 2021, was detained along with several other Tut.by employees and journalists as part of a crackdown on the outlet. In October 2022, the Belarusian State Security Committee added Zolatava to a list of people suspected of involvement in terrorist activities, according to media reports.
Tut.by journalists Elena Tolkacheva and Volha Loika, two other defendants, were released in 2022 and left Belarus, according to multiple media reports. Zolatava’s trial started on January 9, 2023, and was held behind closed doors, according to media reports.
At the same trial, Tut.by director Liudmila Chekina was convicted of tax evasion, organizing actions aimed at inciting hatred, and organizing the distribution of materials calling for actions aimed at harming national security, and was also sentenced to 12 years in prison, those reports said.
Kastsiuhova was detained in June 2021. Her trial started in Minsk on February 6, and was also held behind closed doors, according to those reports by BAJ and Viasna.
Tut.by was one of the leading outlets that covered nationwide protests following the disputed presidential election in August 2020. In August 2021, authorities declared all content published by Tut.by and Zerkalo.io to be “extremist.”
Kastsiuhova wrote analytical pieces for Nashe Mneniye about the protests.
Zolatava and Chekina are likely to appeal their sentences, according to Pushkina and a Viasna representative who spoke to CPJ on the condition of anonymity, citing fear of reprisal. That representative said they believed Kastsiuhova would also file an appeal.
Belarus was the world’s fifth worst jailer of journalists, with at least 26 journalists behind bars on December 1, 2022, including Zolatava and Kastsiuhova, when CPJ conducted its most recent prison census.
CPJ emailed the Belarusian Investigative Committee and the Minsk City Court for comment but did not receive any replies.