Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls for the immediate release of a Belarusian news website editor who is facing up to ten years in prison on a corruption charge after criticizing the president’s relaxed approach to the Covid-19 epidemic. The Belarusian government is trying to intimidate independent media outlets, RSF says.
Sergei Satsuk, the editor of Yezhednevnik, an online newspaper that is well known for its investigative reporting on the country’s healthcare system, was arrested on 25 March on a charge of “receiving a bribe,” which carries a possible ten-year jail sentence.
His arrest came three days after he published an editorial – headlined “Who is sowing panic about coronavirus, the president or websites and TV channels?” – in which he cast doubt on the country’s official Covid-19 infection figures and criticized the order issued by President Alexander Lukashenko to “deal with” media outlets covering the epidemic.
Ever since Satsuk’s arrest, Yezhednevnik has suspended all regular reporting and is just providing coverage of this case.
The day after his arrest, police officers from the Financial Investigation Department raided the website’s headquarters and seized documents. At least three of its journalists and an accountant were questioned as witnesses. Finally, Satsuk’s home and the home of his neighbours were searched on 27 March.
“This arrest is a warning to media that question the Belarusian government’s healthcare policies,” said Jeanne Cavelier, the head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk. “We call for Sergei Satsuk’s immediate release and the withdrawal of all charges against him. This criminalization of journalism in Belarus creates an unacceptable climate of self-censorship.”
In August 2019, Satsuk published an exposé of a vast system of corruption based on the procurement of pharmaceutical drugs abroad at inflated prices. Several senior health ministry officials were arrested as a result of his revelations. But, at the same time, pro-government media such as Belarus Today and the Belarus 1 TV channel accused him of taking bribes and covering the story in a biased manner.
Satsuk had expected reprisals and, a few months ago, sent a letter to European Radio for Belarus, an independent radio station based in Poland, asking the station to publish the letter in the event of his arrest.
Satsuk reports in the letter that, shortly after publishing an article in January 2019 about the costs of the blood donation system in Belarus, he received a visit from the representative of a pharmaceutical sector businessman who told him that “life and freedom have little value in Belarus.”
Belarus is ranked 153rd out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2019 World Press Freedom Index.