KYIV, Ukraine — Ten employees of a popular news site in Belarus that was raided and blocked by authorities this week remain in detention, the Belarusian Association of Journalists said Wednesday.
Three journalists and seven managers and support staff from Tut.by were held overnight in a Minsk detention center notorious for housing political prisoners in harsh conditions, the association said. None of them has seen a lawyer so far and the legal status of the 10 remained unclear, it said.
Belarusian authorities on Tuesday blocked Tut.by, raided its offices and the homes of several 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.
Tut.by reported Tuesday in its account on the Telegram messaging app that a dozen staff members were detained after the raids. According to the Belarusian Association of Journalists, four reporters from other outlets also were detained Tuesday after they arrived to Tut.by’s offices in Minsk to cover the raid. One of them remained in detention on Wednesday, according to the journalists’ association.
“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,” Barys Haretski, the association’s vice president, said.
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.
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.