In the last week, independent Belarusian media have come under intense pressure from the authorities, the likes of which has not been seen for many years. The editorial offices of the TUT.BY website and BelaPAN news agency were subjected to early morning raids by the Investigative Committee on August 7, and TUT.BY’s editor in chief was taken into custody for three days, together with three other editors from the website. Several other editors were questioned and then released. Over at the BelaPAN agency, the writer Tanya Korovenkova was detained.

Over the next two days, two more journalists from the newspaper Belorusy i Rynok were detained, investigative proceedings were launched involving three more outlets, and the editor in chief of BelaPAN was arrested. At the same time as the arrests and interrogations were taking place, data and storage devices were confiscated from the offices and apartments of journalists and editors. 

What prompted all these investigative actions was a statement by Irina Akulovich, director of the state information agency BelTA, that subscribers of the agency’s paid news feed were complaining of interruptions in the service. According to investigators, the interruptions were caused by other journalists illicitly accessing the news service. This is what the detained editors are accused of: using other people’s passwords to access a paid resource.

Judicial and nonjudicial persecution of journalists in Belarus is routine, but the current witch hunt really stands out from previous ones for its scale, the contrast with Minsk’s overall agenda to unfreeze relations with the West, and many other reasons. This has immediately given rise to two versions of what is happening: either this is how the Belarusian authorities are preparing for the 2020 presidential and parliamentary elections, or this is an attempt by a pro-Russian faction within the Belarusian government to derail the process of normalizing relations with the European Union. 

In all likelihood, however, things are a bit more complicated, as evidenced by some of the details of the current campaign that differ from Belarus’s usual tactics for terrorizing the media. 

Firstly, all of the detained are editors: either chief editors or heads of political and economic departments. Rank-and-file writers are not being touched, while previously, the first ones to be raked over the coals were print journalists in retaliation over specific articles.

On top of that, the accusations are leveled not at the media publications as legal entities, but at a “group of people occupying leading positions in a range of organizations.” Yet all of the accused, according to investigators, committed illegal acts during the course of their professional activities. The Belarusian authorities are not really hindering the media outlets at the center of the case from going about their work. Their news services are being updated almost as usual. Owners and directors of the organizations are being called in for questioning, but only as witnesses. 

At the same time, although the investigation is not into the media outlets themselves, business information is being taken away en masse from the editorial offices: all the business data and internal messages are being copied, and hard drives have been confiscated.

The country’s state media are actively covering the story, but their articles also focus exclusively on wrongdoing by particular editors. The issue is not being given a political angle, which was previously standard for any kind of pressure on independent media.

Finally, the difference between a paid service and a free one is only that the information appears on the paid service fifteen to thirty minutes earlier. Accessing a subscription-only service by devious means clearly doesn’t amount to a danger to society, and detaining people for three days for questioning over it doesn’t exactly seem reasonable. Using other people’s passwords to access paid content has long been standard practice in Belarusian journalism circles: writers at state media outlets often freely share their passwords with their colleagues from independent media.

Furthermore, BelTA had previously complained about people using others’ passwords, and that did not lead to raids or arrests. It’s obvious that the alleged violations have long been known, but this information has only been used now. Investigators say they have information that paid content was accessed 15,000 times using other people’s passwords over a period of more than two years, citing evidence including wiretapped phone conversations of the accused. This was clearly a well-planned operation by the Investigative Committee. 

All of these unprecedented aspects in the process of putting pressure on independent media show that what is happening is far from a purge of the media landscape or evidence of the hand of Moscow. Otherwise, the Belarusian authorities would be actively blocking bank accounts and bringing charges against legal entities, not targeting individual editors.

All the evidence suggests that the Belarusian authorities don’t intend to close down or destroy independent media, because experience has taught them that any vacuum that appears following their closure is instantly occupied by foreign information resources: Russian or Belarusian, but physically located beyond Belarus’s western border. The destruction of the last major independent media outlets in the country would lead to the authorities completely losing control of the infosphere.  

So why carry out these detentions and raids? The most likely explanation is that it all began with President Alexander Lukashenko’s phantom stroke. In the early hours of July 30, the Russian Telegram messaging app channel Nezygar sent out a message that read: “The word in Minsk is that Lukashenko has had a stroke.” The news spread like wildfire among Belarusian media, and comments by the president’s spokesperson Natalya Eismont, and even the appearance of Lukashenko himself on the news, only fueled the rumors and jokes circulating on the internet. 

That situation might have made the country’s leadership reflect that if they can’t even manage to control the spreading of rumors started by Telegram, what would happen in the event of a serious crisis or organized information attack by external enemies? They wouldn’t be able to count on the country’s non-state media: even in the face of denials and explanations, articles would still appear suggesting that “they deny everything, but we know the truth.”

As long as independent media exist and dominate the information sphere, the authorities need leverage over their content. They need to be able to influence editors (hence the arrests, raids, and interrogations), as well as media organizations (hence the confiscation of information). It appears that the authorities believe that the most effective way of ensuring that influence is to obtain enough information that they can start legal proceedings against undesirable journalists at any moment. 

Judging by these preparations, the Belarusian authorities apparently expect that a threat to stability could arise quite soon. It’s not clear how they envisage the source of the danger: economic problems, an information attack from the East or West, or perhaps they are contemplating carrying out painful reforms. But what is clear is that they have serious concerns about how non-state media would behave if something did happen. 

As soon as the Belarusian authorities get the leverage they need over the independent media, the case centered around borrowed passwords will likely end in large fines and orders to pay compensation. After that, independent journalists will be able to work as usual until the authorities need to exert pressure on them: now that can be done using simple, quiet threats, instead of orchestrating high-profile campaigns of detentions, arrests, and raids. It won’t give the authorities full control, but will at least make them more sure of themselves in the future. 

  • Alexander Vlaskin