Popular News Outlet Took On Lukashenko; Belarus Responded with Arrests, Raids and a Shutdown

For many Belarusians, a typical day began with Tut.by. Founded in 2000, the web portal quickly became one of the country’s leading independent news services, with over 1.8 million unique visitors daily.Today, the news organization’s website is shut down by government order, although its staff continue to distribute news as best they are able on other platforms.The success of the Minsk-based outlet, founded by the late businessman and philanthropist Yuri Zisser, was based on its independence.”It was the media market’s standard-bearer,” said Nikolai Khalezin, a journalist and the co-founder of the London-based Belarus Free Theater, which produces shows on social justice and human rights. ”This was in large part because Yuri Zisser was successful in maintaining a political balance without taking any one side.”As a result, Khalezin said, Tut.by became the country’s biggest internet-based platform, offering news, email service, sales listings for real estate and more. “All of this made it a market darling,” Khalezin said.”Tut.by would have been the equivalent of, say, The New York Times,” said Uladzimir Matskevich, a former journalist and renowned Belarusian philosopher and methodologist. “(But) with content easily accessible and free to all.”All that changed in August last year, when mass protests spilled across Belarus after President Alexander Lukashenko claimed victory in a contested election. Members of the opposition were jailed or forced into exile, protesters violently suppressed, and media targeted.Tut.by, which has had previous run-ins with Lukashenko’s government, has not been spared. Its offices have been raided; its reporters detained. The Ministry of Information stripped the outlet of its official media status in December, and last month it blocked access to Tut.by’s news website, claiming it was in violation of the country’s mass media law.Even as the pressure increased last year, Tut.by’s journalists remained committed to reporting on rights violations.One of those was Katerina Borisevich, whose reporting on Roman Bondarenko, an activist who died in November in police custody, countered the official account.Up to that point, the state had claimed Bondarenko was drunk and involved in a street fight.But Borisevich reported that details from his medical records showed that Bondarenko had no alcohol in his system. Witnesses and friends of the activist had also said that men believed to be plainclothes police officers had beaten Bondarenko unconscious in the courtyard of his apartment building.Borisevich’s coverage on Tut.by did not go unnoticed.”The evening of November 19, I left home to go to the store, and I never returned,” Borisevich told VOA. “Or, more accurately, I returned with seven strangers, and my home was searched while my 17-year-old daughter watched. I had no illusions. From the time of the first questioning, I knew that I would be convicted.”A court in March sentenced Borisevich to six months in prison for divulging medical secrets. The doctor who provided the medical records was handed a suspended sentence.Borisevich was released on May 19. But her news outlet’s troubles were far from over.In late May, security forces raided the home of Yulia Chernyavskaya, the widow of Tut.by’s founder, and searched the news outlet’s offices.Authorities say the company is under investigation for mass tax evasion.Belarusian authorities detained more than a dozen journalists, confiscated computers and searched homes. They questioned and detained at least four employees before releasing them under nondisclosure agreements. They placed Chernyavskaya under house arrest, froze her daughter’s bank accounts and blocked access to the news website.Retaliatory actionsIt comes as no small irony to Khalezin that Tut.by’s death blow came in the form of criminal tax-evasion charges.The company was based in Minsk’s High-Tech Park, an economic zone set up by Lukashenko in 2005 that is sometimes called the Belarusian Silicon Valley. Companies based there are exempt from value-added tax and real estate and corporate taxes.”It was the government that originally allowed Tut.by to be part of High-Tech Park and to take advantage of various tax breaks, and now it’s the government accusing it of tax evasion,” Khalezin said.Analysts believe the government’s harassment of Tut.by and other independent news outlets is in retaliation for their coverage of the months of unrest and violent suppression after the elections.At a May 21 briefing, Natalia Belikova, project coordinator for Press Club Belarus, described the raid as “a purging of the Belarusian media space.””With so many other information resources blocked, Tut.by served as a window to the world,” Matskevich, the philosopher, told VOA. “But now that window has been slammed shut.”Tut.by co-founder Kirill Voloshin also believes the legal cases are driven by retaliation.”The cause of the crackdown is our conscientious and honest coverage of events related to what the majority of the electorate believed was election fraud, as well as the ensuing violence and endless arrests,” Voloshin said.”We covered everything in an uncompromising, honest and efficient manner. When there were different interpretations of the same event, we always gave the other side an opportunity to have its say. But even this approach did not satisfy the powers that be.”Voloshin says Lukashenko’s “assassination of the portal” is made evident by those targeted in the tax-evasion case that put it out of operation: reporters, editors, programmers, the founder’s wife, and Sergei Povalishev, director of Hoster.by, which hosted Tut.by.”It’s unfathomable that these people are somehow being accused of tax evasion,” Voloshin said, adding that Tut.by was vigilant about submitting business plans and financial documentation to remain eligible for its High-Tech Park exemptions.Under attackTut.by’s experiences reflect the wider troubling climate for media since the elections. Hundreds of media workers have been arrested, with around 30 still detained, and more than 60 cases of violence against the press were recorded by the Belarusian Association of Journalists.The government has blocked access to more than 50 websites in Belarus, and many outlets and their staff have been forced into exile.Media outlets and bloggers with big followings have been singled out, including Raman Pratasevich, who ran the popular Telegram channel Nexta. On May 23, Belarus ordered a passenger plane in its airspace to divert to Minsk so it could arrest Pratasevich.According to Matskevich, the Nexta Telegram channel was of major concern to Lukashenko. When the country’s internet was shut down and hundreds of protesters were beaten, it was Nexta — whose office is based in Poland — that provided timely information on what was happening through videos and photos sent in by people on the streets.It acted as a news crowdsourcing project which, by the speed of its distribution, outflanked other media outlets in the process.While Matskevich does not see a direct link between the Tut.by crackdown and the Pratasevich arrest, he calls it all part of a “widespread crackdown on all information services.”After the arrest of Pratasevich, Lukashenko signed into law a decree that allows the shutdown of the internet if national security is threatened.While the decree conveys a sense of adjudication and finality, some, including Khalezin, refuse to believe Lukashenko holds the winning hand.”He has gambled and lost,” he told VOA. “Diplomatic relations with Latvia are severed; airspace over Belarus is shut down.”Latvia completely froze relations with Belarus over the flight diversion.Tut.by is facing huge pressure, but it has no plans to stop.Before the May raids, the outlet’s Telegram channel had close to 300,000 subscribers. It now has more than half a million.The editors plan to continue — at least on social media. Its co-founder Voloshin said he plans to ask the Belarusian Ministry of Information which articles allegedly violated a law, in a bid to eventually have the site restored.  But he doubts Tut.by will be permitted a comeback.”We don’t have any access to the servers,” he said. “For me, at least, the future won’t seem bright until democracy reaches our shores.”Still, Voloshin maintains the team has no regrets.”Our job was to carry forward the mission first advanced by Yuri Zisser: that of transparent, multifaceted and timely coverage of events taking place in our country,” he said. “Tut.by has never abandoned that mission and doesn’t intend to now. We should not regret that we told people the truth.”