KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Belarusian authorities on Wednesday blocked the website of the country’s leading independent news agency and detained some journalists after raiding their apartments as part of a sweeping crackdown on independent media and human rights activists.
Police searched the office of the BelaPAN news agency and the apartments of at least six of its staff. The agency’s website was no longer available online. BelaPAN is the oldest and the only large independent news agency in Belarus, operating since 1991. It’s been one of the last major independent media outlets still operating.
“The raids follow the worst traditions of the Soviet times — people are being woken up early in the morning, they are being threatened and intimidated,” BelaPAN journalist Tacciana Karavenkova, who has left Belarus, told The Associated Press. “Today I woke up at 7 a.m. to messages from colleagues in our editorial chat about massive raids.”
After the raids, the authorities detained BelaPAN’s chief editor Iryna Leushyna, its accountant Katsyaryna Boyeva and the agency’s former director Dzmitry Navazhylau. Belarus’ Investigative Committee said the three are being investigated on a charge of organizing and taking part in activities blatantly violating public order — an offense punishable by up to four years in prison.
The Belarusian Association of Journalists urged authorities stop pressuring the news agency and to release its detained staff.
“One can shut down independent media, detain its staff members, intimidate people, but no one can suppress thoughts and ideas,” the association said.
Authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko faced months of protests triggered by his being awarded a sixth term in an August 2020 vote that the opposition and the West saw as rigged. He responded to the demonstrations with a massive crackdown that saw more than 35,000 people arrested and thousands beaten by police.
In recent weeks, Belarusian authorities have ramped up the pressure against non-governmental organizations and independent media, conducting more than 200 raids of offices and apartments of activists and journalists in July alone, according to the Viasna human rights center.
A total of 31 Belarusian journalists remain in custody either awaiting trial or serving their sentences — including BelaPAN journalist Andrei Alexandrov, who has been behind bars since January, facing 15 years in prison on treason charges.
The authorities have shut down other important independent media outlets, such as the widely popular Tut.By news site and the oldest newspaper in Belarus, Nasha Niva.
The United States’ embassy in Belarus on Wednesday condemned the crackdown on independent media.
“The regime’s fear of truth is bottomless as it rabidly assaults press freedom. Virtually all independent media outlets in Belarus have been targeted. Today it was BelaPAN’s turn again. But the voices of freedom cannot be silenced; justice will prevail,” the U.S. embassy said in a tweet.
Follow all AP stories on Belarus at https://apnews.com/hub/Belarus.