Two Belarusian women journalists, free press symbols, sentenced to 12 years in prison
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) is outraged by the 12-year jail sentences that two Belarusian journalists – the editor and the manager of TUT.by, an independent media outlet closed by the Belarusian authorities in 2021 – received from a court in Minsk after a trial behind closed doors lasting more than two months. The international community must step up pressure on Belarus in order to get them released, RSF says.
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Handcuffed and isolated from the court within a glass cage, editor Maryna Zolatava and manager Liudmila Chekina – who ran what was Belarus’s biggest independent media outlet and were listed as “terrorists” by the authorities – received this shocking sentence with smiles. Neither Zolatava, cheerful as always despite almost two years in provisional detention, nor Chekina, said to be as solid as a rock, had expected leniency from a judicial system that takes its orders from President Alexander Lukashenko’s government.
“These emblematic figures of a free press – Alexander Lukashenko’s worst enemy because it is a pillar of democracy – Maryna Zolatava and Liudmila Chekina are innocent. We call on the international community to step up pressure on Belarus, Russia's subservient ally, to release them and all of the other journalists it has imprisoned.
Zolatava was convicted of “inciting social hatred” and “disseminating content calling for actions undermining national security” while Chekina was convicted of “tax evasion,” “organising incitement of social hatred” and “disseminating content calling for actions undermining national security.”
On the eve of the court's verdict, the state TV channel Belarus 1 broadcast an “investigative report” about TUT.by and Zolatava that began with the words: “Why was one of the largest Internet portals in the country turned into a dumping ground and why did it become the direct coordinator of anarchy on the streets of Belarus?”
Entitled “Bye bye, TUT.bay,” this propaganda film dwelt for almost an hour and a half on TUT.by’s “negative impact” and how its leaders spent years supposedly lining their pockets. It blamed the media and its staff for almost all the country’s ills – including the devaluations and the outcry about the government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic – and it even blamed them for the Maidan revolution in Ukraine in 2014.
The culmination of a long smear campaign, the absurdity of the film’s accusations elicited a combative response from TUT.by’s former team. “Mila, Maryna, we are proud of you,” they said. “Your integrity and your perseverance are an example for all of us. We are proud to continue your work – we will provide Belarusians with real information, no matter what.”
Nothing had filtered out from the closed-door trial since it began on 9 January. Only the defence lawyers, who were bound by a confidentiality agreement, were able to attend. In a sign of a desire to deprive the two journalists of a good defence, one of the defence lawyers was disbarred during the trial, on 25 January, on the grounds of “insufficient qualifications” although she had been practicing for ten years.
Arrested on 18 May 2021 during raids on TUT.by’s headquarters and the homes of several employees, Zolatava and Chekina always refused to sign a letter acknowledging their guilt. Three of their colleagues who were to be tried at the same time – Volha Loika, Alena Talkachova and Katsiaryna Tkachenka – managed to flee the country before the trial after being released conditionally. The court placed them on the list of persons wanted in Belarus. Nine others pleaded guilty before the trial and paid “damages” to the state in order to be freed.
Censorship and other convictions
A few months after that dark day for Belarus’s leading media outlet, TUT.by rose again from its ashes in July 2021, when part of the former editorial team launched a new website in exile, called Zerkalo.io, which means “mirror.” This extremely popular news outlet was immediately blocked by the Belarusian government but is now on the list of more than 80 sites around the world that have been unblocked by RSF’s Operation Collateral Freedom.
Belarusian Yearbook editor Valeriya Kastsyugova was meanwhile also convicted today in a trial held behind closed doors, receiving a ten-year prison sentence. RSF reported in its 2022 Round-up that Belarus is one of the world’s five biggest jailers of journalists (especially women journalists), with a total of 32 currently detained (their portraits).
Nearly 400 Belarusian journalists have had to flee the country, according to the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ), an RSF partner that documents abuses against journalists. The BAJ was the first human rights organisation to be declared “extremist” by Belarus’s State Security Committee (KGB) on 28 February.
The Lukashenko government has been cracking down hard on all journalistic activity since August 2020. “Some of these violations may amount to crimes against humanity,” the UN Human Rights Office said in a report published today.
Censorship, violence, raids and arrests continue to be carried out in the name of the “combatting extremism,” against a backdrop of increasingly fervent pro-Russian propaganda since the invasion of Ukraine. Being subscribed to one of the many media outlets that have been declared “extremist” or just posting peaceful comments on social media is enough to be arrested and convicted.