Conviction of editor-in-chief must be quashed

13.03.2019
PEN International and the Belarusian PEN Center strongly condemn the decision to fine editor-in-chief Maryna Zolatava and urge the Belarusian authorities to overturn her conviction, make efforts to improve freedom of expression in Belarus and remove restrictions on Belarusian bloggers and journalists.

On 4 March 2019, the Zavadski District Court of Minsk ordered Maryna Zolatava, editor in chief of Tut.by, the largest independent news website in Belarus, to pay a hefty fine of 7,650 rubles and to cover 6,000 rubles of attorneys fees.(over 5,600 euros in total the average annual salary in Belarus) for dereliction of duty under Article 425, part 2 of the Criminal Code. Maryna Zolatava was one among at least fifteen journalists accused in 2018 of illegally obtaining information from a state-run news website, relating to their alleged use of unauthorised passwords to access the paid-subscriber section of the governments online news agency BeITA.

The trial and conviction of Maryna Zolatava are part of a sustained attack on independent voices in Belarus. The authorities should immediately quash her conviction and drop all charges against her, said Rebecca Sharkey, Campaigns and Communications Director of PEN International.

Maryna Zolatava was charged following a raid on the offices of Tut.by and at least two other media outlets in August 2018, during which she and other editors and journalists were briefly detained, and equipment seized. In November 2018, Belaruss Investigative Committee dropped the criminal charges against the other journalists after they paid heavy fines and damages. Maryna Zolatavas charges were upheld, although she consistently denied any wrongdoing.

Maryna Zolotava was found guilty despite evidence given by the editor of Tut.bys news department, in which she stated that Maryna Zolatava had no knowledge of unauthorised visits to the BelTA website, and that investigators had told her that she would face detention if she failed to implicate Maryna Zolatava in the case.

The raids, detentions and confiscation of equipment during the preliminary investigation were clearly excessive and aimed at intimidating Belaruss journalistic community. We urge the authorities to stop interfering with the work of journalists and independent media, said Taciana Niadbaj, President of the Belarusian PEN Center.

Additional information

The Tut.by trial raises serious concerns about freedom of expression and growing press restrictions in Belarus. In 2018, over 100 print, radio and TV journalists and bloggers were arrested and fined for failing to obtain accreditation, and journalists were detained for covering protests. Local elections in February 2018 were marked by the targeting of independent observers and journalists for livestreaming the events on the internet. At least one reporter was arrested and allegedly beaten while in custody.

Restrictive amendments to the Law on Mass Media, adopted in 2018, have increased the authorities control over the internet, a move that perfect[s] the systemic curtailing of freedom of expression, and allow[s] the authorities to legally block the only remaining public space for free debate, according to the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Belarus.

Despite increased internet access for Belarusian citizens, there is no independent regulator to oversee information and communication technologies in the country and recent amendments to the Law on Mass Media allow the authorities to restrict freedom of expression online in the name of preventing fake news. Telecommunications and the media market are heavily regulated by the state, and there has been a worrying trend towards seemingly politically-motivated blocking of independent websites.

Websites are repeatedly blocked for publishing banned information under Article 511 of the Law on Mass Media, and also for publishing information considered to be illegal. In 2018, the definition of illegal information was widened to include information, the distribution of which can harm the national interests. Article 38 of the Law on Mass Media allows Belaruss Ministry of information to block websites without legal process and provides no avenue for appeal, allowing the state to exercise absolute discretion in their decisions. The OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Harlem Désir condemned the move.

For further details contact Aurélia Dondo at PEN International, Koops Mill, 162-164 Abbey Street, London, SE1 2AN, UK Tel: +44 (0) 20 7405 0338 e-mail: [email protected]