Kiev, Ukraine (AP) – The Belarusian authorities blocked the website of the country’s leading independent news agency on Wednesday and arrested some journalists after they searched their homes as part of a comprehensive raid against independent media and human rights activists.
The police searched the office of the BelaPAN news agency and the homes of at least six employees. The agency’s website was no longer available online. BelaPAN is the oldest and only major independent news agency in Belarus, operating since 1991. It was one of the last major independent media outlets still in operation.
“The raids follow the worst traditions of the Soviet era – people are woken up early in the morning, they are threatened and intimidated,” BelaPAN journalist Tacciana Karavenkova, who has left Belarus, told The Associated Press. “Today I woke up at 7 a.m. to hear news from colleagues in our editorial office about massive raids.”
After the raids, the authorities arrested BelaPAN’s editor-in-chief Iryna Leushyna, her accountant Katsyaryna Boyeva and the former director of the agency Dzmitry Navazhylau. The Belarusian commission of inquiry said the three are under investigation for organizing and participating in activities that appear to violate public order – an offense that can be punished with up to four years in prison.
The Belarusian Union of Journalists urged the authorities to stop pressure on the news agency and release their detained staff.
“You can shut down independent media outlets, arrest their employees, intimidate people, but nobody can suppress thoughts and ideas,” said the association.
Authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko faced months of protests sparked by his award of a sixth term in an August 2020 vote that was viewed as rigged by the opposition and the West. He responded to the demonstrations with a massive raid in which more than 35,000 people were arrested and thousands were beaten by the police.
In recent weeks, the Belarusian authorities have increased pressure on non-governmental organizations and independent media and carried out more than 200 raids on the offices and homes of activists and journalists in July alone, according to the Viasna Human Rights Center.
A total of 31 Belarusian journalists are still in custody or awaiting their prison sentences – including the BelaPAN journalist Andrei Alexandrov, who has been behind bars since January and faces 15 years imprisonment for treason.
Authorities have shut down other major independent media outlets such as widespread news site Tut.By and Belarus’ oldest newspaper, Nasha Niva.
The US embassy in Belarus condemned the crackdown on independent media on Wednesday.
“The regime’s fear of the truth is limitless, as it brutally attacks freedom of the press. Virtually all independent media in Belarus have been targeted. Today it was BelaPAN’s turn again. But the voices of freedom cannot be silenced; Justice will prevail, “said the US embassy in a tweet.
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