NEW YORK—Charges against Marina Zolotova, editor-in-chief the Tut.by news website, represent a clear attempt by the Belarusian government to punish and silence independent media, PEN America said in a statement today.

On March 4, in a decision widely condemned as a further attempt to suppress freedom of expression in Belarus, Marina Zolotova, editor-in-chief of Belarus’ most popular independent internet news site, Tut.by, was fined 7,650 Belarusian rubles (about $3,500 USD) by a court in the capital, Minsk. She has also been ordered to pay the legal costs of state-run news agency BelTA, amounting to 6,000 rubles (about $2,800 USD). This verdict was handed down as part of the so-called “BelTA Case,” which began several months ago when BelTA’s director alleged that employees at independent media outlets including Tut.by had been “illegally accessing premium content” from BelTA. Belarusian authorities indicated that this referred to employees at these media outlets using other individuals’ usernames and passwords to access paid content. BelTA serves as a media platform for the autocratic regime of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko. Lukashenko has been in power since the office of the President was created in 1994, and his government has systematically harassed, intimidated, and persecuted opposition voices for decades.

Zolotova was previously accused of “unauthorized access to computer information” in connection with this case, but the charges were dropped. She has now been convicted of enabling her employees “illegal access of premium content” through “official inaction.” The verdict has not yet entered into force. The 14 other individuals charged in the case, among them staff from the independent news sites BelaPAN, Deutsche Welle, and Belarusians and Market, all had their charges dropped after they were coerced into paying large administrative fines and compensation to state-owned outlets BelTA and SB Belarus Today. During the trial, it was revealed that the phone communications of Marina Zolotova and other journalists had been monitored even before the criminal case was opened. Several of the journalists charged also claimed that government investigators had pressured them to provide evidence against Zolotova during interrogations, including through direct threats against them and their relatives. The political nature of the case is further indicated by the aggressive police searches carried out at Tut.by and BelaPAN’s offices in August, and by the excessive personal searches of those present during the trial. 

“This tenuous accusation of ‘official inaction’ is very clearly an attempt to punish an independent journalist by any available means,” said Polina Kovaleva, Eurasia Project Director at PEN America. “We stand with Belarusian PEN and with the Belarusian Association of Journalists in condemning this case as a continued attempt to suppress free media and freedom of expression in Belarus, and call for taking steps to overturn Marina Zolotova’s sentence and release her from criminal responsibility immediately.””

PEN America closely follows attacks on writers and media and their right to free expression in Belarus. Just last week, PEN Belarus and PEN America called for an end to the persecution of Belarusian writer and activist Paviel Sieviaryniec, who was arrested for organizing a peaceful protest on February 26.

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