Belarusian court bans Tut.by and affiliate news site Zerkalo.io as ‘extremist’

Stockholm, August 16, 2021 – Belarusian authorities should refrain from contesting the news site’s appeal Zerkalo.io against his designation as “extremist” and stop using the country’s anti-extremism laws to stifle independent reporting, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

On May 18, authorities raided the offices of the independent news site. Tut.byinterviewed around 130 of its staff, blocked the store’s website and detained 15 of its employees and associates for alleged tax evasion, according to then-CPJ reports and Anna Kaltygina, former director of the press office at Tut.bywho spoke to CPJ in a phone interview.

Several store workers fled Belarus and on July 8 launched Zerkalo.io as a temporary replacement for Tut.byaccording to Kaltygina, who now works as the interim editor of Zerkalo.io. Belarusian authorities blocked access to the website in the country immediately after its launch, according to Zerkalo.io.

On August 13, the Central District Court in Minsk, the capital, granted a request from the Interior Ministry to declare any content posted by Tut.by and Zerkalo.io as “extremist”, thus prohibiting the two outlets, according to news reportsa declaration by the press service of the municipal court of Minsk and Kaltygina.

“The insistence of the Belarusian authorities to ban Tut.byone of the country’s most popular news sources, and its successor Zerkalo.io is emblematic of the government’s brutal campaign to destroy the independent press, ”said CPJ program director Carlos Martínez de la Serna in New York. “The authorities should reverse unfair designations of sites as ‘extremist’ and allow them to work freely.”

The Ministry of Information will list Tut.by and Zerkalo.iogovernment websites, social media profiles and logos Republican list of extremist materialsaccording to the court press release.

Once the outlets are added to this list, anyone found guilty of producing, storing or disseminating material from the websites may be subject to a fine of up to 870 rubles (US $ 349) or d ” detention for up to 15 days, depending on the administrative code from Belarus. Legal persons will be liable to a fine of up to 14,500 rubles (5,813 USD) for the same offenses.

In one declaration released following the court decision, Zerkalo.io called the decision “illegal” and “an attempt to erase history” and promised to appeal.

Kaltygina describes Tut.by as the largest and most popular news site in Belarus, with a staff of around 260; the site received an average of about 300 million visits per month before the police raid its offices, according to data shared with CPJ by Kaltygina.

Kaltygina told CPJ that Zerkalo.io staff take this designation as a sign that they are doing a good job and have said they plan to continue working normally and hope to one day restore Tut.by in Belarus.

In an August 13 declaration on Telegram, Interior Ministry spokeswoman Olga Chemodanova said that an expert commission concluded that the sites and their social media accounts function as “an arena for propaganda of extremist activity, aimed at stoking social discord or conflict, organizing and organizing mass unrest and inciting political and ideological discord.

Zerkalo.io at covered the mass protests against the government of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, which started last August, and reported on trial of individuals arrested during demonstrations.

CPJ called and emailed Belarus’ interior ministry for comment, but received no response.

Belarusian authorities have previously appointed Poland-funded broadcaster Belsat TV and sports news site Tribuna.com as an “extremist”, according to news reports.

[Editors’ note: After the publication of this article, CPJ received an error message stating that the email seeking comment from the Interior Ministry was not delivered. This article has been updated to reflect that CPJ also called that office for comment.]