In the last several days, police have been searching the offices of independent websites and news outlets, confiscating their computers and detaining their journalists, in what looks like a widespread crackdown on independent journalism.
Searches and detentions
It began with searches and confiscations on August 7 at the offices of two independent news outlets that often report critically about President Alyaksandr Lukashenko and his government, Tut.by and BelaPAN. Five journalists were detained. Police said they were suspected of illegally obtaining information from the state-run news agency, BelTA. BelTA has a subscription system with the possibility to log in and obtain breaking news 5-10 minutes before it hits the public screens. The media outlets in question are accused of using accounts that were not their own to access that information. Investigators said a criminal case was opened after the Interior Ministry uncovered 15.000 cases of unauthorised access to BelTA’s exclusive section.
Since those initial searches and arrests more and more journalists and editors of independent websites and news outlets have been detained for questioning, with their computers confiscated. They include the “Belarusians and the Market” magazine, the Realt.by website, as well as a local reporter for the German Deutche Welle broadcaster. All have been detained in the BelTA case.
Deutche Welle has lodged a protest with the Belarusian ambassador in Berlin, demanding its reporter’s immediate release. Other international organisations, like the Helsinki Committee have made similar statements pertaining to all detained journalists. Reporters Without Borders (RFS) urged the authorities to stop the ‘harassment of critical journalists.’ The head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk Johann Bihr said “It is hard to see [the searches and detentions] as anything other than attempts to intimidate leading independent media outlets at a time of growing harassment of critical journalists. The Council of Europe’s human rights body has also expressed ‘great concern.’ Belarusian Nobel Prize laureate Svetlana Alexievich called it “an attempt to intimidate us all” and a test: “whether we exist as a society that is capable of offering civil resistance.”
Photo: Crawford Learmonth