Belarus targets top news site and reporters in media crackdown

Exiled opposition leader calls for international response to ‘murder’ of outlet

Belarusian authorities have blocked the country’s main independent news website and searched its offices and the homes of several of its journalists, amid a media crackdown that has been condemned by opposition groups and the West.

The website was taken down on Tuesday morning, at the same time as editor-in-chief Marina Zolotova said officers from the Belarusian state financial investigation department had raided her apartment and those of several colleagues.

Officials said an investigation into alleged "large-scale tax evasion" had been launched against, which gained prominence inside and outside Belarus last year thanks to its extensive coverage of unprecedented protests against Alexander Lukashenko, the country's autocratic leader of 26 years.

The rallies, which at their peak drew crowds of 100,000 people in the capital, Minsk, were met with an often-brutal police crackdown in which several people died, hundreds were hurt and tens of thousands detained.

With support from Russia, which backed his claim that western powers were fomenting the protests, Mr Lukashenko weathered the crisis, drove leading opponents abroad or into jail, and launched a sweeping attack on critical voices.

About 16 Belarusian journalists are now believed to be behind bars, serving sentences ranging from 15 days to two years, for allegedly taking part in unauthorised protests that the reporters insist they were simply covering.

‘Deliberate murder’

"Today we are witnessing the deliberate 'murder' of the independent media," said Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, an opposition politician who fled Belarus due to threats she received after claiming to be the rightful winner of last August's presidential election.

"A group of people holding power in Belarus is the real occupation regime: they kill media, kill political parties and civic communities, and kill us on the streets and in prisons," added Ms Tikhanovskaya, who is now based in neighbouring Lithuania and regularly meets western diplomats to discuss Belarus's future.

“I call on the international community to immediately react to the regime’s crackdown . . . This is a planned attack on our journalists and media, and they need legal protection and emergency relocation. It is crucial to help media continue their work.”

The EU and US have imposed travel bans on Mr Lukashenko and almost 90 of his loyal officials and frozen their assets, in response to the presidential election – which the West says was blatantly rigged – and the subsequent police violence.

As relations with the West have soured, Mr Lukashenko has drawn closer to Russia, which has offered him financial, diplomatic and security support and backed his assertion that EU and Nato states are plotting to oust and kill him.

Russia is also ramping up pressure on its own independent media, with broader and tougher application of a law that obliges news outlets and reporters who receive funding from abroad to declare themselves as “foreign agents”.

Daniel McLaughlin

Daniel McLaughlin

Daniel McLaughlin is a contributor to The Irish Times from central and eastern Europe