Belarus cracks down on independent media, detains jounalists

Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko talks to journalists during his meeting with media called 'Great talk to the President' in Minsk, Belarus, 03 February 2017. [EPA/NIKOLAI PETROV]

Belarus on Wednesday (8 August) detained at least six more journalists in Minsk including a freelance correspondent for Deutsche Welle in an ongoing crackdown on independent media, ostensibly over unauthorised access to a state news agency.

The ex-Soviet country led by strongman Alexander Lukashenko on Tuesday had detained at least four journalists from two popular news sites, accusing them of “unauthorised access to computer information for reasons of personal gain.”

The Council of Europe and Reporters Without Borders on Tuesday expressed concern at the detentions, while the Belarusian foreign ministry said they had “nothing to do with issues of press freedom.”

Belarus’s Investigative Committee said Wednesday it had detained Paulyuk Bykowski, a Belarusian journalist who works for Deutsche Welle, Germany’s public international broadcaster, after raiding his home.

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Bykowksi’s wife Volha Bykowskaja told Deutsche Welle that investigators seized all their computers and devices and bank cards.

The Investigative Committee also said it had detained journalist Alexei Zhukov from Belarusians and the Market business weekly.

Earlier Wednesday the editor-in-chief of property news website Uladizlau Kuletski told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) that investigators were raiding its offices and seizing computers and had detained him and three other journalists.

The journalists were not answering their phones.

State news agency BelTA has accused the journalists of failing to pay subscription fees, with officials saying its “business reputation was harmed.”

If found guilty, the journalists face up to two years in prison.

The harsh crackdown comes despite the fact that BelTA makes its stories freely accessible 15 minutes after subscribers see them.

Deutsche Welle correspondent Bykowski told RFE/RL that he had not read the agency’s reports for a long time.

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Relatives of one of the journalists detained Tuesday, Maria Zolotova, an editor at news site, said she spent the night in a detention centre and was remanded in custody for three days.

The whereabouts of three other detained journalists from were unclear.

Investigators confirmed they were probing the companies that run and another news site, BelaPAN as well as several other publishing and media groups.

The editor-in-chief of BelaPAN, Irina Levshina told AFP that investigators had not allowed their lawyer to visit their detained journalist Tatiana Korovenkova and were pressuring her to use a state-assigned lawyer.

Separately in the city of Brest, blogger and opposition activist Alexander Kabanov was detained Wednesday for allegedly insulting a policeman, independent journalist Tamara Shchepetkina said.

Belarus, ruled by authoritarian Lukashenko since 1994, is ranked 155th out of 180 in this year’s Reporters Without Borders world press freedom index.

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