Officials’ May 18 shutdown of Belarus’ largest independent news site, Tut.by has left other independent Belarusian journalists wondering which Belarusian media group will be targeted next.
A regular source of critical reporting on the government, Tut.by faces criminal charges of large-scale tax evasion from Belarus’ State Control Committee, the government’s financial auditors, for having allegedly received unjustified tax breaks as a tenant of Minsk’s Hi-Tech Park.
On May 19, the portal reported that eight Tut.by employees, including the site’s editor-in-chief, Marina Zolotova, and Tut.by Director Lyudmila Chekina, remain in custody after police searches of some of their residences. At least 14 employees were reported detained on May 18.
Law enforcement and officers from the Committee’s Department of Financial Investigations searched and sealed shut the news outlet’s Minsk office, and also raided its regional bureaus in the cities of Brest, Homel, Hrodna, Mahilou, and Vitebsk.
The Ministry of Information subsequently announced it had blocked Tut.by website for allegedly providing information from an unregistered organization, BYSOL, in violation of Belarus’ mass media law. BYSOL conducts online fundraising campaigns to assist Belarusians it considers victims of state repression.
The news portal’s mirror site, e-mail server (mail.tut.by), advertising site, and an online medical-assistance campaign (help.blog.tut.by) also have been blocked.
The digitally native site is continuing to function on social media, however.
Though Tut.by has long been a target for the government – the site lost its media registration in late 2020 and saw one journalist, Katsyaryna Barysevich, receive a 6-month prison sentence this February – these latest actions appeared to stun some independent Belarusian journalists.
“This is almost the worst thing that can happen to media in Belarus,” commented Boris Goretsky, deputy head of the Belarusian Association of Journalists. Goretsky views the prosecution, detentions, searches, and site blockade as part of a “war going on against genuine journalists.”
As of May 18, Belarus had imprisoned 16 journalists, mostly under criminal charges, according to the Belarusian Association of Journalists.
Although Tut.by had reckoned that police might also take measures against their own senior managers, their raiding the apartments of “ordinary employees” or detaining them had never come to mind, Tut.by co-founder Kirill Voloshin said.
Alyaksey Dikavitsky, deputy director of the Warsaw-based satellite broadcaster Belsat, which saw two of its journalists sentenced to 2 years in a Belarusian prison in February, seemed less surprised: “The authorities simply do whatever they want with journalists,” Dikavitsky observed.
Yegor Mikhailovich, editor-in-chief of a smaller independent news outlet, Nasha Niva (Our Levels), believes, though, that the government attempting to shut down Tut.by was just a matter of time: “Tut.by was too big, too influential a site for Lukashenka’s apparatus to tolerate its existence so long,” Mikhailovich said.
In April 2021, over 1.8 million unique users visited Tut.by daily on workdays, according to cached data from traffic analyst Yandex Metrika on the site’s now-blocked advertising page. Nearly 18.2 million unique users visited the news portal that month, according to Yandex Metrika.
By contrast, the state-run news agency Belta registered visits from just under 143,500 users per day as of December 2020, according to traffic analysis site Website Scoop.
For a government that sees itself as pitted against a Western-backed plot to overthrow its rule, that difference in popularity could appear problematic – particularly as it continues to seek closer ties and economic support from Moscow.
Belarusian officials have not elaborated about the Tut.by case beyond their charges, but a lone May 18 commentary on Belta appeared to reflect government views.
Political observer Alyaksandr Shpakovsky, a member of the leadership of the pro-government Belarusian Union of Journalists, alleged that Tut.by has created “deliberate disinformation” to alarm Belarusians and spark protests against the government. “[S]ooner or later,” Shpakovsky continued, the portal’s activities had to be “adjusted” by “authorized” state organs.
“The state is obliged to defend its own information space and to force business entities to conduct economically transparent activities,” he lectured readers.
Criticism of this “defense” from the international community, however, came swiftly.
In a May 18 statement, the U.S. embassy charged that Tut.by's “primary ‘crime’ appears to be its objective reporting on peaceful protests resulting from [Belarus’] fraudulent 2020 elections and the regime’s violent and cruel actions in response.”
The United States will hold Belarus responsible for its international human-rights commitments, the embassy stressed.
Statements from the European Union’s delegation to Belarus, the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Teresa Ribiero, Amnesty International, the Committee to Protect Journalists, and Reporters without Borders echoed those sentiments.
On Telegram, Belarusian opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, currently resident in Lithuania, went a step further. Claiming that the Belarusian government had committed “premeditated murder” against an independent news organization, she posted a photo of herself holding a sign that reads “I am TUT,” and urged others to do the same.
“They’re killing mass media, killing [political] parties and [civil-society] communities, killing us on the streets and in prisons,” she said of the government.
Belarusian officials, usually leaving rebukes of international criticism to Lukashenka, have not responded.
Searches And Detentions
More than that silence, the measures taken against Tut.by operations prompted Nasha Niva’s Mikhailovich to worry they may presage a crackdown on smaller independent news operations, like his own.
On the afternoon of May 19, Tut.by reported that police had cordoned off Mikhailovich's Minsk apartment and that minibuses were parked outside of the building. The reason for these measures was not clear. Mikhailovich's wife, Adarya Hushtyn, is a Tut.by journalist.
As of early May 19, eight Tut.by employees remained in detention in Minsk, the portal reported. Nearly all had been the subject of house searches. The charges against them or reasons for their detention in connection with the tax-fraud case have not been made public.
Among the editorial staff, Editor in Chief Marina Zolotova, political-economic news editor Volha Loika, and journalist Alena Tolkacheva have all been placed in the Belarusian capital’s Akrestina detention facility. Tut.by claims that they have been denied access to attorneys.
The portal reported that Zolotova had conjectured that she, Director Chekina and senior accountant Anzhela Asad could be charged with tax evasion.
Zolotova and Tolkacheva, who earlier said she had been detained as a witness in the tax case, were taken in for questioning by the Department of Financial Investigations on May 18.
Searches also occurred at the residences of Deputy Editor in Chief Maksim Haiko – and, for unclear reasons, those of his brother and of his wife’s relatives – as well as the residences of editors Anna Rudenko and Olga Savkiv. Financial investigators confiscated computers, cell phones, and bank cards at these locations, but the three journalists remain at liberty.
Haiko was released after an interrogation in the Department of Financial Investigations, Tut.by reported.
Aside from Chekina and Assad, three other administrative employees remain in custody: Deputy Director Irina Rybalka, Chief Engineer Alla Lapatka, and attorney Katsyaryna Tkachenka.
Also raided by police were Tut.by-affiliated businesses: the country’s main registrar of domain names, Hoster.by; online car retailer Av.by, and job-search engine Rabota.by. The managers of Hoster.by and Av.by were taken in for questioning.
By contrast, one Tut.by reporter was released from prison on May 19. Katsyaryna Barysevich spent 6 months in jail for allegedly inciting unrest and disclosing 'a medical secret" when she reported in November 2020 that physicians had not found alcohol in the blood of a killed opposition sympathizer whom police and Lukashenka claimed had been drunk and disorderly.
Barysevich told Tut.by that she has no immediate plans to return to work, but to rest and see her friends and family in Minsk. "Yes, they put me in prison, for some time I couldn't see my daughter, but I remained a free person," she said.
Deciding on Tut.by's own future depends on understanding the government's actions, but when “one person decides” everything in Belarus, “there’s not always an answer to the question ‘Why is this needed?’” co-founder Voloshin commented.
Voloshin maintains that the news site leaving Belarus to set up operations in another country is not a viable option. Transferring the entire staff abroad is "impossible” and not all employees would want to make the move, he commented to Current Time.
“We write about Belarus, for Belarusians, about Belarusians, and distanced work from another country would put under question – maybe, not [readers’] trust, but, at a minimum, the popularity, quality of our content, and its quantity,” Voloshin elaborated. "Yes, it’s possible to work like that, but I’m afraid that it will already be a different Tut.by.”
The ideal scenario, he continued, would be if Tut.by continues operating in Belarus with a different domain name.
As yet, with their newsroom still sealed shut by investigators and police, little suggests that Tut.by will soon have that option.