A dubious criminal investigation into independent journalists — including a DW correspondent — is currently underway in Belarus. The case, Natalia Makushina writes, is an attempt to discredit critical journalists.
Authorities in Belarus have arrested at least 10 independent journalists. On August 7 and 8, police searched the offices of the country's largest internet portal, Tut.by; the news agency BelaPAN; the real estate portal Realt.by; the editorial department of the newspaper Kultura; and the apartments of a number of editors and journalists. Authorities seized computer hard drives and data-storage devices during the raids. DW's Minsk correspondent, Pavluk Bykovsky (pictured), was among those arrested. Tut.by founder Yuri Zisser was taken in for questioning.
The presidential newspaper Sovetskaya Belorussiya immediately featured images of the Tut.by raid, as well as portions of intercepted telephone conversations on its website. Investigators claim the portal's editor-in-chief, Maria Zolotva, and her colleague Anna Kaltigina can be heard discussing how to access content at BelTA in the recorded conversation.
The Foreign Ministry quickly announced that the case is not about freedom of the press, but rather the "unauthorized access to fee-based content." (The investigation was prompted by a request from managers at the state news agency BelTA after what it described as "unauthorized access of computer information.")
No information monopoly
Arresting people in order to interrogate them and intercepting phone calls as the basis for a criminal prosecution seem to indicate that authorities are engaging in Stalinism, in which a confession is the mother of all evidence.
BelTA's subscribers have access to information a few minutes sooner than people who visit the publicly accessible version of the agency's website. Agency reports are available to subscribers for 15 minutes before going public. But even if someone were using fake passwords or login data to access fee-based information, that would be a problem for the agency to solve — namely its inability to adequately protect its data. Acquiring data from the news agency, and publishing BelTA as the source thereof, is not theft. To date, no one in Belarus has declared a monopoly on information.
Jokes are already circulating online in Belarus: What in the world could anyone steal from the megaphone of President Alexander Lukashenko's autocratic regime? Data about how much wheat was threshed during this year's harvest? So, why is a civil issue being elevated to a criminal investigation — with raids, seizures and solitary confinement?
Independent journalists stifled
The whole case is far-fetched. The main objective has nothing to do with unauthorized access to information at BelTA. The case is a clear sign that the repression and discrediting of journalists – who must work under extreme pressure if they are not employed by state-friendly media – has become a fundamental aspect of the work being done by Belarus' security apparatus.
Access to the independent internet sites Charter 97 and Belaruspartisan are already blocked. Arrests and court cases are a regular occurrence for freelance correspondents of the TV station Belsat and the radio station Racyia, both of which broadcast to Belarus from Poland. Fines for journalists already add up to tens of thousands of dollars.
Naturally, the most reasonable thing to do at this point would be to end criminal proceedings against the journalists and give the injured business interests the possibility to solve the problem on their own. Yet history has shown that Belarusian authorities are highly unlikely to listen to the voice of reason.