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Tuesday, 10 December 2019

Belarus releases independent journalists detained in probe

Sunday 12 Aug 2018
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Belarus on Friday released the last two independent journalists detained in raids this week over alleged illegal access to a state news agency, their editors said.

In all, eight journalists have been released as suspects in a criminal probe after being held overnight and questioned by investigators.

The ex-Soviet country led by authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko raided journalists' homes and workplaces from Tuesday to Thursday over allegations of illegally accessing information from the state-run news agency BelTA.

The last to be released on Friday were Paulyuk Bykowski, a correspondent for Germany's public international broadcaster Deutsche Welle, and the editor-in-chief of Belapan news website Irina Levshina,

Bykowski told Radio Liberty /Radio Free Europe during the raid at his home on Wednesday that he had not taken an interest in BelTA's news wire for many years and had nothing to do with the case.

"I have the status of a suspect," Bykowski said, adding that he hopes to receive accreditation to continue working for Deutsche Welle.

As she walked free, Levshina said she had been treated decently by staff in the detention centre on Thursday, "who it seemed to me understand the complete absurdity of what's happening," Belapan reported.

She emerged after being questioned for two hours by investigators.

The journalists said they had to sign agreements not to disclose details of the case.

Analysts say the detentions and seizures of computers are an attempt to control the few remaining independent media outlets in the country led by Lukashenko since 1994.

Belarus has said the case is not political and has "nothing to do with issues of press freedom".

DeutW on Wednesday sent a message of protest to the Belarusian ambassador to Germany.

The detentions have prompted criticism from the Council of Europe and Journalists without Borders, while the US embassy in Belarus called for the journalists' immediate release.

They are accused of "unauthorised access to computer information for reasons of personal gain" for allegedly accessing state news agency BelTA without a subscription.
If found guilty, they face up to two years in prison.

Belarusian media reported that BelTA provides free access to its materials 15 minutes after they are made available to clients.

"The overall task of the security chiefs is to scare people and increase self-censorship in order to more fully control the media sector," said Belapan's political analyst Alexander Klaskovsky.

While the state already controls television and radio, "the era of online media has given the leadership the feeling that they are losing the levers of influence," he said.

Among the media sites targeted, news portal Tut.by is particularly widely read, Klaskovsky said.

Investigators said Tut.by's editor-in-chief Maria Zolotova failed to carry out her duties as a manager, a criminal offence that carries a sentence of up to 5 years.

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