Now on trial, jailed Belarusian website editor keeps hope alive from behind bars

Imprisoned Belarusian journalist Maryna Zolatava, the editor of her country’s leading independent media outlet, TUT.BY, has not given up hope although the authorities have branded her as a “terrorist” and she is facing more than ten years in prison in a trial that began on 9 January. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) condemns this travesty of justice and calls for the release of this emblematic figure of journalism.

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“How can an editor who is respected for her professionalism pose a ‘threat to national security’ in Belarus?” said Jeanne Cavelier, the head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk. “Maryna Zolatava is being forced to defend herself against ridiculous accusations behind closed doors in a court that takes its orders from the government. This judicial circus must end. RSF calls for the release of this leading Belarusian journalist, who has disgracefully been labelled a “terrorist.”

Zolatava was added to the official list of “terrorists” in October 2022, which was when her fellow journalists discovered that she had been charged with “inciting hatred” and “threatening national security.” The grounds for these charges, each of which is punishable by 12 years in prison, include the fact that TUT.BY published information “endangering national security,” the prosecutor’s office said.

Arrested along with 14 TUT.BY colleagues when its offices were searched and closed on 18 May 2021, Zolatava is also accused of “tax evasion” on a large scale, which was the first charge brought against her. TUT.BY is alleged to have defrauded the state of more than 3 million roubles (1.1 million euros) by using software to which it should not have had access because it was developed outside the “high tech park” where TUT.BY was located. 

This, at least, was the explanation provided by a representative of the state agency responsible for the prosecution when interviewed by the state TV channel ONT the day after the raid. He did not give any further details about the type of software used and its function .

A “terrorist” admired for her professionalism and humanity

The Lukashenko government’s relentless persecution of this independent media outlet has not dented this 45-year-old journalist’s optimism. In one of her letters from prison, she said she is “certain that justice will prevail sooner or later.” She also wrote that: “TUT.BY still really exists because my team continues to work on social media and I am infinitely grateful (...) TUT.BY will not disappear.” 

After fleeing the country, some of her editorial team’s members relaunched TUT.BY in exile in July 2021, renaming it Zerkalo (the Russian word for “mirror”). The Belarusian authorities blocked access to the new site and declared it to be “extremist” the following month, but RSF was able to restore access within Belarus by creating a mirror site under its censorship circumvention operation Collateral Freedom.

Respected by her peers, admired by her former colleagues, and the recipient of many awards for her work, Zolatava played a major role in TUT.BY’s rise. Before it was closed by the authorities, it was receiving 3.3 million unique visitors, one in three of the country’s inhabitants, according to a study by the company Gemius. A journalist since the age of 19, Zolatava quickly became TUT.BY’s editor-in-chief after joining it in 2004.

This hard worker is also passionate about Balkan music and, before being jailed, used to carve time out of her busy schedule to practice sports, including half-marathons, swimming, roller-skating and badminton, according to her daughter, Nadzeya. Praised for her human qualities, moral principles and unflagging optimism despite the persecution, Zolatava described the crackdown on the media since the disputed August 2020 presidential election in an interview for RSF in December 2020.

In an irony of history, Zolatava is being held in the same prison in Minsk where her great-grandmother was jailed under the Nazi occupation during the Second World War because, as a doctor, she had hidden Jewish children and supplied medicines to Soviet Belarusian resistance fighters. It was the first thing Zolatava thought of when she was taken to the prison.

No information has emerged from the trial now under way aside from photos published by the state news agency BelTA showing Zolatava and TUT.BY general manager Liudmila Chekina in the dock, separated from the court by bars like dangerous criminals. Three of their colleagues who were to have been tried at the same time – Volha Loika, Alena Talkachova and Katsiaryna Tkachenka – fled the country after being granted conditional releases in the spring of 2022.

 

 

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