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Pressure against Belarusian independent media: what’s next?

Since August 2018 till present, the Belarusian authorities put pressure on independent media resources, including the top Belarusian media outlet TUT.BY. Taken into account that Alexander Lukashenka recently expressed the idea that “We must approach the elections in such...

Since August 2018 till present, the Belarusian authorities put pressure on independent media resources, including the top Belarusian media outlet TUT.BY. Taken into account that Alexander Lukashenka recently expressed the idea that “We must approach the elections in such a way that there is not even an alternative in people’s minds”, the Belarusian authorities will most probably keep the pressure on editorial offices of independent Internet resources.

The Internet resource TUT.by is the largest mass medium in Belarus with over one million daily visits. Besides advertising, TUT.by provides quite neutral information about current events in Belarusian politics, economy and society. As of November 30, the chief editor of TUT.by Maryna Zolatava stayed charged with article 425 part 2 of the Criminal Code (inaction of a person in office). The article envisages a penalty from a fine to deprivation of liberty up to five years.

Lukashenka’s dissatisfaction with TUT.BY: early clues

Several years ago, the first signal appeared that Lukashenka was dissatisfied with the existence of such a significant independent mass medium as TUT.BY and its owner Yury Zisser. When Lukashenka was giving a speech, “addressing to the people and Parliament”, he got off a topic and said a phrase: “Yakubovich and Shapiro! Deal with Zisser.”

At that time, the audience giggled. The sentence sounded like a joke. Lukashenka did not go into details about how Yakubovich and Shapiro had “to deal” with Yury Zisser, the founder and owner of TUT.by.

Lukashenka has one more reason to dislike Yury Zisser. The latter is the only representative of the large business who financed a number of events for those whom Lukashenka calls “the fifth column”. In June 2018, Zisser donated a significant sum of money for holding an event of For Freedom movement. An award “For freedom of thought” was presented at the birthplace of the famous Belarusian writer Vasil Bykau, at village Bychki (Vushachy district, Vitebsk region). Also, Yury Zisser donated to the Polish literary award for Belarusian writers named after Jerzy Giedroyc.

How the pressure against TUT.BY outburst

In August 2018, the director of the state-run informational agency BelTA Iryna Akulovich blamed the independent journalists, including journalists from TUT.BY, for stealing information and getting an unsanctioned access. Her claim served as the basis for initiating the criminal cases against the independent journalists.

On 7 August 2018 employees of the police held searches at the editorial offices of TUT.by. Information carriers and computer system units were seized. The police also searched flats of several employees of the TUT.by editorial office. On 8 August 2018, the TUT.by owner Yuriy Zisser and the director general Liudmila Chekina were questioned at the Investigative Committee.

media pressure in Belarus

Marina Zolotova, the chief editor of tut.by Source: tut.by

On 10 August, a representative of the Investigative Committee reported that proofs and testimonies obtained from the suspects served as a basis for initiating criminal cases under article 349 of the Criminal Code (unsanctioned access to computer information).

Most suspects were released under recognisance not to leave the country, facing liberty deprivation term up to two years. Maryna Zolatava, the chief editor of TUT.by has been charged with article 425 (inaction by a person in office), she faces deprivation of liberty for a term up to five years.

During the questionings, employees of the Investigative Committee exerted pressure on the journalists. On September 25, the editor of the resource finance.tut.by Zmitser Bobryk said:

“I received direct threats — against me and against my relatives and close people. First, I was promised that some details of my personal life would be publicised if I refused to cooperate. It ended with threats concerning my relatives who could suffer. I signed a paper on cooperation.”

Reactions on TUT.BY pressure

Regarding the claims of the Investigative Committee, Yury Zisser said: “I do not understand why one needed to do this. The news from BelTA is in public access.”

Commenting on the detentions of journalists and searches at the editorial offices, Zisser remarked: “The events got a cosmic scale of coverage in various state mass media, totally irrelevant to the matter of the case, thus, political underpinning has become evident.”

The head of the informational campaign Ales Lipay called the charges “absolutely absurd”. The human rights defender Ales Bialiatski remarked: “It is a targeted policy of restricting the information space in Belarus in order to keep Belarusian citizens in the atmosphere of fear, uncertainty and disinformation.”

On 19 October, employees of the Investigative Committee again turned up at the editorial office of TUT.by with an inspection: allegedly, after receiving a phone call that the office had been mined. Police employees often use such pretexts in order to enter premises of oppositional organisations, NGOs and to spoil their events and meetings.

On 22 November, all suspects of the BelTA case were summoned to the police to get registered on a criminal record for a term up to 15 years. Thus, they received a warning that they could turn up behind bars.

All other journalists involved in the case were held liable under the Code of Administrative Offenses and fined (in particular, the chief editor of BelaPAN Iryna Leushyna paid a fine of 735 BYN). The restriction to leave the country was withdrawn. The information carriers and system units were returned.

A pro-governmental TUT.BY?

According to Andrzej Poczobut, the famous journalist, an activist of the Union of Poles of Belarus, the pressure on the journalists “should be viewed in terms of counter-revolutionary strategy”.

Yuriy Zisser tut.by

The future will show if there will be any changes in the editorial policy of TUT.by. A gloomy scenario is probable, on the analogy with how the informational space got cleaned up in Putinist Russia. The authorities might pressurise the owner of TUT.by Yury Zisser, or might change the owner of TUT.by and then change the editors.

On October 5, the founder of TUT.by Yuriy Zisser in an interview to the Internet resource kyky.org replied to the question whether he was going to sell TUT.by:

“I do not see any sense in selling it. Most probably, after this, the portal will alter the course. A new owner will change the editor and will turn the portal into BelTA or Sovbeliya [state media outlets] – and nobody will read it.”

The former TV propagandist for Lukashenka and the head of the Belteleradiocompany, currently living in Russia media expert Alexander Zimouski remarked: “Zisser might be asked toughly to hire another editor to manage the portal.”

To conclude, the authorities are likely to keep the pressure on journalists of Internet resources. BelTA claimed material damages from all persons involved in the case varying from three to 17 thousand rubles (equivalent to 1.5 to 8.5 thousand dollars). Even for profitable companies like TUT.by paying such sums might be problematic. The BelTA case has been clearly fabricated. It might recur, and not even once. The authorities might trample on independent Internet resources from another side. There is no independent court in Belarus. When there is a will, there will always be a pretext for pressure.

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Andrei Liakhovich
Andrei Liakhovich
Andrei Liakhovich directs the Center of Political Education in Minsk.
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