UARU
Detention of Belarusian Journalists Sparks Fears of Media Crackdown
8 August, 2018

On August 7-8, various Belarusian media reported searches at newsrooms and journalists’ houses in and around Minsk. As a result of these searches, Belarusian authorities detained at least 14 journalists and confiscated computers and hard drives.

All of the media organizations and journalists in question are accused of illegally obtaining information from a state-run news agency BelTA that works as a paid subscription service. Some of these outlets pose as independent, while others only write about things like real estate, science or agriculture.

While this may be seen as a crackdown on freedom of speech, the government denies their actions to have anything other than a legal nature. With the help of its Belarusian partner Euroradio, Hromadske looks into what’s going on in Belarus.

What Happened?

On August 8, Radio Svaboda, the Belarusian department of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, reported that the Minsk offices of three media organizations were searched. As a result of these searches, the chief editor of real estate news site Realt.by Vladislav Kuletskiy, along with three other journalists from the same organization, was detained. According to Radio Svaboda, the investigators just tuned up at the Realt.by newsroom, confiscated office machinery and forced its employees to go with them for interrogation.

The same day a journalist from Selskaya gaspadarka (Agriculture) newspaper was detained with his wife at their home in the Baravlyany village, 14 kilometers north-east of Minsk.

Photo credit: svaboda.org (RFE/RL)

While on August 7 offices of two new organizations – Tut.by and BelaPan – were searched. Six Tut.by employees were taken for interrogation at the Investigative Committee: chief editor Marina Zolotova, news editor Anna Kaltygina, editor Galina Ulasyk, Society department editor Ulyana Boboid, editor of Finance.tut.by Dmitriy Bobrik and 42.tut.by journalist Anna Yermachenok. As evidence, the Belarusian Security Service made some telephone conversations public, in which Zolotova and Kaltygina admit stealing news from BelTA.

The search at another news site, BelaPan, lasted eight hours, its employees say. As a result, all the office machines were confiscated, and journalist Tatyana Korovenkova was taken to the Investigative committee for interrogation.

Photo credit: svaboda.org (RFE/RL)

There has also been no contact with Yevgenia Bereziuk, former editor at Tut.by, since the morning of August 7, her relatives say. The Investigative committee has not confirmed her detention, but according to Euroradio’s information, the authorities have looked into her case.

Apart from Tut.by, BelaPan and Realt.by, the employees of the Investigative committee also came to the office of the Nauka (Science) newspaper, but nobody was detained as a result.

How Did It Start?

BelTA’s CEO Irina Akulovich says she filed a complaint to Belarusian police because she could not determine who stole information from their service.

“Over 30 media organizations are subscribed to BelTA’s services, and I know all of them. But there are also those who never subscribed but still obtain information using other people’s [logins and] passwords,” she said to Euroradio.

Photo credit: svaboda.org (RFE/RL)

According to BelTA, a criminal case was opened based on part 2 article 349 of the Belarusian Criminal Code, namely the “Unsanctioned access to computer information made on grounds of personal interest leading to significant damage.” This article carries a punishment of either a fee, a ban from holding certain job positions or partial or full imprisonment of up to 2 years.

Could Freedom of Speech Be Under Threat?

Some Belarusian journalists believe that the BelTA complaints are just an excuse to prosecute certain media organizations.

“We have an inkling that these criminal cases existed before and now they just added BelTA’s complaint to them,” Euroradio journalist Zmitser Lukashuk told Hromadske. “It is completely unclear what’s going on. We feel like they could come to us at any moment.”

Lawyer and deputy head of the Belarusian Journalist Association Oleg Ageyev also has doubts about the legality of these criminal cases. In his opinion, when the level of damage inflicted and people responsible are not established, starting criminal proceedings is “extreme.”

Photo credit: svaboda.org (RFE/RL)

“A logical question arises: why is all of this happening right now? We see that the government has been increasing control over what happens on the internet lately,” he said.

The Belarusian Foreign Ministry has made assurances that the searches of various newsrooms in Minsk, as well as the journalists’ detentions, have no “hidden motives of pitfalls.”

“This situation is outside of politics and is in no way connected to freedom of speech or the journalists’ performance within Belarus,” the ministry’s spokesperson Anatoliy Glaz told Euroradio.

But Belarusian media expert Pavlyuk Bykovskiy notes the disparity between BelTA’s comments and the government’s explanation.

Photo credit: svaboda.org (RFE/RL)

“We only heard about this [password] sharing from this BelTA CEO’s interview, while the Investigative Committee explains [the situation] differently. They speak of illegal access to the database and information. And this implies hacking or something like that,” he told Euroradio on August 7 adding that further information needs to be provided and made clear before holding anyone accountable.

In the meantime, Radio Svaboda reported that on the morning of August 8, Bykovskiy’s home was also searched. The investigators say that an “unsanctioned login to BelTA’s database was detected” from his home IP-address.

/Translated by Maria Romanenko