KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Thirteen people remained in detention in Belarus Wednesday after a popular news site was raided and blocked by authorities, according to the Belarusian Association of Journalists.
Belarusian authorities on Tuesday made online site Tut.by unavailable to readers and raided its offices and the homes of some staff members. Officials maintained the news site, arguably the most popular one in Belarus, violated media laws by publishing content on behalf of BYSOL, a foundation that helps victims of political repression but lacks proper state registration.
The authorities also accused Tut.by of tax evasion and launched a criminal probe of the site’s top staff members, who could face charges that carry a maximum penalty of seven years in prison.
Eleven Tut.by staff members and two people from companies affiliated with the site have been detained following the raids, the Belarusian Association of Journalists said Wednesday. One reporter who was covering the Tuesday raid at Tut.by's office in Minsk also remained in detention.
“The destruction of Tut.by leaves millions of Belarusians without access to objective news and shows that the authorities are ramping up repressions against journalists that stand up against the state propaganda machine,” Belarusian Association of Journalists Vice President Barys Haretski said.
The whereabouts of the widow of Tut.by founder Yury Zisser were unknown on Wednesday, her daughter said on Facebook. The news site reported that Yuliya Charnyauskaya suffered a hypertensive crisis after a visit from law enforcement Tuesday and was hospitalized with a an officer by her side.
Charnyauskaya's daughter Yevgenia said her mother was later discharged from the hospital but had not been in touch with her and it remained unclear where she spent the night.
President Alexander Lukashenko’ unleashed a harsh crackdown last year after large protests erupted against his disputed reelection. Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus with an iron fist since 1994, won his sixth term in office in an August election. Opposition supporters and some poll workers said the election was riddled with fraud, and the opposition rejected the results.
More than 34,000 people have been arrested in Belarus since August, and thousands were brutally beaten. Authorities also targeted independent media outlets, detaining journalists covering the protests and leveling criminal charges against some of them. More than 20 media workers currently remain behind bars, either awaiting trial or serving time, according to the Belarusian Association of Journalists.
Last year, the Belarusian government stripped Tut.by, which has extensively covered the protests and the crackdown on demonstrators, of its media credentials. It continued to operate regardless, but its journalists came under increasing government pressure: Katsiaryna Barysevich was sentenced to six months over her investigation into a protester’s death, and Lyubov Kasperovich was sentenced to 15 days in jail Monday after covering a trial related to the protests.
Barysevich was released on Wednesday after serving her time in a penal colony in Gomel, a city in southeastern Belarus. “I have been a journalist for 15 years and have never even thought I could end up in jail,” Barysevich said after leaving the facility.
Also Wednesday, law enforcement officers searched the apartment of award-winning journalist Yahor Martinovich, chief editor of the independent online newspaper Nasha Niva, and his wife, Adaria Hushtyn, a journalist with Tut.by. It wasn't immediately clear whether the raid was connected to the case against Tut.by.
The European Union on Wednesday urged the Belarusian government to stop harassing journalists and to end "violence and repression against peaceful protesters and various segments of the society, including human rights defenders or representatives of minorities as well as the members of the political opposition."
“There can be no impunity for perpetrators of human rights abuses,” the EU said in a statement.
The Associated Press