Analysts Say Sentencing of Belarus Journalists is Retaliation for Coverage

The verdicts handed down last week to two senior members of the independent Belarusian news website TUT.by were condemned by media as retaliation for truthful reporting.

In a closed hearing in Minsk on Friday, a court convicted the website’s editor-in-chief, Maryna Zolatava, of incitement and distributing material aimed at harming national security. The site’s director, Lyudmila Chekina, was convicted of tax evasion, incitement and organizing the distribution of material aimed at harming national security.

The journalists, who have both spent nearly two years in pre-trial detention, were each sentenced to 12 years in prison.

Three other journalists from the website also faced trial but had left the country earlier.

The news website reported extensively on the contested 2020 presidential election when President Alexander Lukashenko claimed victory and opposition candidates were detained or forced to flee.

Since 2020, TUT.by and its staff have been harassed, the newsroom raided, and access to its website blocked as part of what analysts say is Lukashenko’s wider crackdown on opposition voices. Authorities labeled the TUT.by site an “extremist organization” and many of its journalists have gone into exile.

The Belarus Embassy in Washington referred VOA to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Belarus. The ministry did not respond to VOA’s email requesting comment.

Lukashenko has said in interviews that reports on media jailings in Belarus are “misinformed.” He told The Associated Press in 2022, “the law is one and it must be observed. 

Media condemn verdict

TUT.by was one of the most popular independent news websites in Belarus.

“It really was the largest media in the country, covering up to 70% of the internet audience,” the site’s co-founder Kirill Voloshin told VOA. “It was a real power, a real potential tool of influence and a real threat to Belarusian authorities.”

In general, Voloshin said, “The courts [in Belarus] treat journalists very harshly and are doubly harsh toward journalists and TUT.BY managers.”

Voloshin is among the estimated 400 Belarusian journalists who have left the country since 2020. Many now live or work from Lithuania and Poland.

The co-founder said he believes Friday’s hearing was conducted behind closed doors “because none of the allegations are true.”

He said he doesn’t believe his colleagues will be released any time soon, adding, “The number of political prisoners will soon exceed 1,500, or has already exceeded. There is even a Nobel laureate there, there are well-known human rights activists.”

Barys Haretski, the deputy chair of the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ), said he believes the verdict is retaliation for TUT.by’s journalism.

“Dictators are always afraid of the light, and when some events take place in the country, and journalists cover them honestly, dictators really don’t like it,” he told VOA.

Haretski said that many journalists had dreamed of working for TUT.by before it was forced out.

“Lukashenko is fighting any dissent, especially with such large and influential media as TUT.by,” he said.

Persecution spreads

Zolatava and Chekina are among dozens of journalists to be detained in Belarus since 2020.

The BAJ at the start of 2023 estimated that more than 30 journalists remained imprisoned for their work inside Belarus. 

Political analyst Alexander Klaskovsky described the sentences as “cruel” even when compared to the wider situation for Belarus media.

“Under Lukashenko, the independent press was simply denied the right to exist,” the political observer said.

Lukashenko and his government “considers the uncontrolled media as one of its main enemies … and therefore there is no mercy here,” Klaskovsky said. “There is also a cold calculation in this, because the authorities are methodically clearing the field of independent media.”

He noted the harassment of the few remaining publications. In March, at least seven journalists have been detained, and authorities have raided reporters’ homes as well as the office of a local newspaper, Infa-Kurjer.

Media analyst Galina Sidorova said that Lukashenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin are both involved in the persecution of independent journalists and the suppression of freedom of speech.

Sidorova is the co-founder of 19-29 Foundation, a community of investigative journalists.

“We must not forget that the Putin regime is waging an aggressive war, and the intensified repressions against journalists in Russia are connected precisely with this,” she told VOA.

She also believes the harsh response to TUT.by is linked to its popularity, especially during the contested 2020 presidential election in Belarus.

The website had millions of visits, Sidorova said, adding that it “was among the first media outlets that the authorities wanted to crack down on.”

She dismissed the charges against the website’s journalists, saying, “The reason for all these accusations was the same: their highly professional journalistic activity.”

Despite a difficult environment, Sidorova noted that journalists still report, adding that the media community is “looking for ways to somehow work and convey independent information to our audience in this terrible and unbearable situation.”

This story originated in VOA’s Russian Service 

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