The IFJ and EFJ have backed calls by the Belarusian Union of Journalists to immediately release a group of journalists detained in police raids and accused of illegally accessing information.
On 7 August 2018 in Minsk, the newsrooms of Tut.By, Belarus largest web portal, and BelaPAN, private news agency, were searched by the police looking for information about the alleged unlawful accessing of information from the state news agency's website BelTA.
During the raid, journalists were banned from accessing their working places, laptops were seized and several employees were summoned for interrogation. The police also searched the newsroom of Navuka (Science) newspaper located in the building of the Belarusian Academy of Sciences.
Tut.by and BelaPan journalists are accused of accessing BelTA's content restricted to subscribers (state news agency) with logins and passwords other than their own. The Investigative Committee claimed to have uncovered 15,000 instances of unauthorized access. “The crime inflicted considerable damage on BelTA, leading to the illegal procurement and use of information protected from unauthorized access, as well as to the erosion of the enterprise's business reputation,” the Investigative Committee said. If found guilty, the journalists face up to two years in prison.
The journalists claim they only used information open to the public.
The Belarusian Union of Journalists (BAJ) reported that 9 journalists were detained on 7 August. Some were released in the evening. By the morning of 8 August, the following 5 journalists are still being detained: Marina Zolotov (Tut.by editor in chief); Anna Koltygin (Tut.by managing editor); Galina Vlasic (Tut.by editor); Anna Ermachenok (Tut.by editor). Tatiana Karavenkova, BelaPAN correspondent on international issues is also being detained for three days.
The Committee also searched the apartment of well-known journalist and media expert Pauliuk Bykouski, who works for Deutsche Welle's Russian-language service, and a laptop was seized. Reports say that the investigators had extended the probe to more media outlets.
BAJ stated: “We consider that a flagrant violation of freedom of expression and media freedom. In any case, the actions of law enforcement agencies seem excessive. Investigation of criminal cases should not affect the freedom and professional activities of the media. We are especially concerned by the persecution of the media against the background of systematic violations of the right to disseminate information and intimidation of journalists through prosecution of BelaPAN founder Alexander Lipai and Belsat TV journalists.”
BAJ, along with the IFJ and the EFJ, called on the authorities to immediately release the detainees, ensure access of the journalists to their working places and give back the equipment seized. Both federations denounced disproportionate and exaggerated measures, which might compromise the journalists' sources.
The Council of Europe has called on the Belarusian investigative authorities to “ensure rapid and transparent investigation”, and to “liberate all the arrested journalists”.
IFJ General Secretary Anthony Bellanger said: “The news portals and their journalists do not deserve such exaggerated penalties for what they are alleged to have done. This act shows the government’s attempt to manipulate media, to block independent news, to attack journalists and intimidate their peers. It violates human rights and press freedom. We demand the government authorities immediately release detained journalists and let both news agencies resume their operations.”
For more information, please contact IFJ on + 32 2 235 22 16
The IFJ represents more than 600,000 journalists in 146 countries