Reporters Without Borders (RSF) condemns the heavy fine that a court in Minsk imposed today on Maryna Zolatava, the editor of the leading news website Tut.by. The fine is just one more attempt to intimidate the few remaining independent media outlets in Belarus, RSF said.
Convicted of “negligence” for allegedly letting her staff use the dispatches of the state-owned news agency BelTA without a subscription, Zolatava was ordered to pay a fine of 7,650 rubles and court costs of 6,000 rubles, or a total of more than 5,600 euros – the equivalent of the average annual salary in Belarus.
Zolatava and a dozen other journalists were held for several days after raids on Tut.by and the independent news agency BelaPAN last August, when the pro-government media subjected both media outlets to an intense smear campaign. Zolatava, who had faced a possible five-year jail term, was the only one to be tried on criminal charges. Her colleagues were ordered to pay damages to BelTA without being tried.
“This heavy fine constitutes the latest act of intimidation against the last independent media outlets in Belarus,” said Johann Bihr, the head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk. “The way the authorities persisted with this case, which was out of all proportion from the outset, shows their determination to undermine the state media’s rivals. It is high time the international community, especially the European Union, took steps to end the escalating crackdown in Belarus.”
During the trial, the defence insisted that Tut.by’s articles were systematically posted after BelTA’s dispatches had been published – a quarter of an hour after their publication for subscribers.
Several journalists said they had been pressured to provide testimony for the prosecution. The IP addresses used to access the BelTA website are shared not only by Tut.by’s journalists but by all visitors to Tut.by’s art gallery. Zolatava and her colleagues learned in the course of this case that their phones had been tapped, in violation of the confidentiality of their sources.
Zolatava’s trial came amid efforts by the Belarusian authorities to tighten their grip on the media. They include a draconian new media law, blocking of leading news sites and an unprecedented wave of fines against independent journalists. Belarus is ranked 155th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2018 World Press Freedom Index.