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International Press Institute condemns criminal action against TUT.BY journalists

10.01.2023 Source: IPI

Editor-in-chief and executive director accused of 'incitement to hatred'

The International Press Institute (IPI) condemns the criminal proceedings opened by a court today in Minsk against five editors and journalists at Belarusian media outlet Tut.by. IPI and our global network denounce this glaring case of persecution of journalists at the now-banned independent media outlet and demand their immediate release.

On Monday, January 9, proceedings opened against the five journalists, who stand accused of tax evasion, incitement to hatred, and endangering the national security of Belarus. Among the five suspects accused, three have since managed to flee the country. They are Volha Loyka, Alena Talkacheva and Katsiaryna Tkachenka. However, Tut.by Executive Director Lyudmila Chekina and Editor-in-Chief Maryna Zolatava remain under arrest and face up to 12 years in prison. The details of the accusations against them remain unknown due to the court’s decision to consider the case in a closed session.

Following the contested re-election of Alexander Lukashenko in 2020, pro-government media accused Tut.by, an independent outlet which was Belarus’s most popular news portal, of destructive activity aimed at undermining the interests of Belarus.

Following this smear campaign, authorities detained 15 Tut.by journalists and contributors in May 2021 in Minsk and in other major cities of Belarus. On the same day, the State Committee of Control of Belarus accused Tut.by of tax fraud. According to authorities, the media outlet took advantage of tax breaks by registering at the Minsk High Technology Park but engaged in activities not permitted by the park’s regulations.

It is not clear why, given the accusations, authorities only initiated proceedings against Tut.by in 2021, as the media was registered several years earlier and was widely known in Belarus as being primarily an independent news portal.

“The timing of these absurd accusations, at the height of Alexander Lukashenko’s campaign of repression against journalists and civil society, are a clear sign that the case against Tut.by is politically motivated”, said IPI Deputy Director Scott Griffen. “We demand that Belarusian authorities immediately release Lyudmila Chekina and Maryna Zolatava, and drop charges against Volha Loyka, Alena Talkacheva, and Katsiaryna Tkachenka.”

Surrealistic accusations

Following 19 months of pre-trial investigation, Belarusian prosecutors accused Chekina, Zolatava, Loyka, Talkacheva, and Tkachenka of violating several articles of the country’s criminal code, including:

  • Article 342.1 (active participation in group activities seriously violating public order), punished by up to four years in prison;

  • Article 361.3 (directing appeals aimed at endangering the national security of the Republic of Belarus, made through media or online), punished by up to five years in prison;

  • Article 243.2 (evasion of taxes of an exceptionally high amount), punished by up to seven years of prison);

  • Article 130.3 (activities committed in a group aimed at inciting hatred against racial, ethnic, religious, linguistic or other social groups), punished by up to 12 years in prison.

Prior to these accusations and following the forced closure of Tut.by by Belarusian authorities, a group of former Tut.by contributors created a new independent online media outlet, Zerkalo.io. In a statement published on the day before the opening of the case against their colleagues in Minsk, they termed their accusations “[a] surrealistic [situation], which can be seen as [the regime’s] last jump into an alternative reality, where real news is an absolute evil.”

“Among our team we do not have the smallest doubt that the Tut.by case was falsified in all its pieces, and that it appeared only because the regime is afraid of journalists. It is afraid of real news. We believe that the Tut.by collaborators should be released [immediately] in court”, wrote Zerkalo.io on its website.

According to the Belarusian Association of Journalists, there are currently 33 journalists behind bars in the country of nine million. Belarus ended 2022 jailing yet another media worker, Larysa Shchyrakova, and maintained its position as one of the worst countries in the world for journalists to freely practice their profession.