Journalists from Belarus’ top independent news outlet went on trial in the country’s capital on Monday as a relentless crackdown persists on critical voices in the ex-Soviet nation.
The editor-in-chief of TUT.BY online news portal, Maryna Zolatava, and its director general, Lyudmila Chekina, face charges of “hurting national security,” “inciting hatred” and dodging taxes. Three other TUT-BY journalists who left the country are being tried in absentia as part of the same trial.
The defendants could face up to 12 years in prison if convicted in a trial that opened in the Minsk City Court behind closed doors. Western diplomats and independent journalists were denied access.
Zolatava and three of her colleagues have been put on a list of “terrorists” by the country’s top security agency that has retained its Soviet-era name, KGB.
Belarus was shaken by huge anti-government protests after the disputed August 2020 re-election of President Alexander Lukashenko, which the opposition and the West denounced as a rigged sham. Authorities responded to the demonstrations with a massive crackdown that saw more than 35,000 people arrested, thousands beaten by police and dozens of media outlets and non-government organizations shut.
TUT.BY was the most popular online media in Belarus with more than 3.3 million users and it extensively covered the protests before it was banned in 2021.
The Belarusian Association of Journalists says that 32 journalists are currently behind bars, awaiting trial or serving their sentences.
Many TUT.BY journalists have fled Belarus and opened a new outlet, Zerkalo.io, which has been blocked in Belarus.
“The TUT.BY case has been fabricated because the regime fears journalists, fears real news,” Zerkalo.io said in a statement. “Belarus is rushing forward on a path to an alternative reality where real news is considered evil.”