KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Belarusian authorities blocked the website of a leading online media outlet and detained some of its journalists and several reporters from other news organizations Thursday, the latest moves in a sweeping crackdown on dissent and independent media in the ex-Soviet nation.
Belarus’ Information Ministry said it has blocked Nasha Niva’s website after the prosecutor general’s office accused it of posting unspecified unlawful information.
The Belarusian Association of Journalists, or BAJ, said that authorities conducted searches at Nasha Niva’s offices and detained chief editor Yahor Martsinovich, journalists Andrey Skurko, Andrey Dynko and office accountant Volha Rakovich for questioning. The Belarusian Investigative Committee said it called an ambulance for Martsinovich, who fell ill, but continued his interrogation later.
Agents of the Belarusian state security agency, which still goes under its Soviet-era name, KGB, also conducted searches Thursday at two regional media outlets, the Brest Gazette in the city of Brest on the border with Poland and the Intex-press in the city of Baranovichi.
In the city of Orsha in eastern Belarus, authorities detained Ihar Kazmerchak, the editor of the Orsha.eu news portal, and searched the apartment of photographer Dzyanis Dubkou. In another eastern city of Bobruisk, the KGB detained Alesya Latsinskaya, a journalist who worked for the independent Bobr.by news portal.
In the city of Vitebsk in Belarus’ northeast, freelance journalist Vital Skryl was detained and authorities raided the apartment of another local journalist, Dzmitry Kazakevich, who was out during the search. And in the town of Glubokoye in the Vitebsk region, freelance journalist Zmitser Lupach was detained by the KGB in a sanitarium where he resided.
Nasha Niva journalist Аrtsem Harbatsevich likened the crackdown to the authorities’ earlier action against another top independent news portal, Tut.by, which saw its website blocked and 12 of its journalists detained in May.
“It’s a crackdown on the editorial office in the worst Soviet-era tradition,” Harbatsevich told The Associated Press in a telephone interview from Minsk.
Nasha Niva, which was founded in 1906, is the oldest and the most authoritative Belarusian media outlet. Its online audience exceeds 100,000.
Both Nasha Niva and Tut.by extensively covered months of protests against Belarus’ authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko, which were triggered by his reelection to a sixth term in an August 2020 vote that was widely seen as rigged.
The authorities responded to demonstrations with a massive crackdown that saw more than 35,000 people arrested and thousands beaten by police. Leading opposition figures have been either jailed or forced to leave the country.
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the main opposition candidate in the election, fled the country after the vote under official pressure. She urged Belarusians Thursday to subscribe to media channels on a popular messaging app to support independent media.
“The regime is so much afraid of the truth that it blocks all independent media, denies accreditation to foreign journalists, shuts editorial offices, blocks editorials and puts editors behind bars,” Tsikhanouskaya said. “They hope that if they abduct journalists and close media outlets people will forget about falsifications, violence and repressions by the regime. But our memory and the truth are stronger than that.”
The European Union and the United States have responded to the crackdown by slapping Belarus with sanctions. They have imposed new, tougher restrictions after Belarus diverted a passenger jet on May 23 to arrest an opposition journalist.
Speaking Thursday to graduates of military academies, Lukashenko accused the West of trying to “deprive us of our sovereignty and enforce external governance.”
“But we will not come down on our knees,” he said. “We are defending ourselves, our families, our children and our land.”
Overall, 27 Belarusian journalists are currently in custody, either serving their sentences or awaiting trial, according to the Belarusian Association of Journalists.
BAJ said that Nasha Niva journalists are accused of organizing mass disturbances and actions violating public order — charges that carry a sentence of up to 15 years.
“The crackdown on independent media in Belarus is continuing,” said the association head, Andrei Bastunets. “The authorities have decided that they can deprive millions of citizens of information. The authorities see journalists and independent information as their main enemies.”