TUT.BY Portal logo, via Wikimedia Commons. Remixed by Tanya Lokot.

Belarusian Interior Ministry wants to label Tut.by as extremist. From Global Voices. 

Tut.by, a popular independent news website in Belarus, has reportedly removed all of its social media posts for the past 18 months to protect its staff and readers from the ongoing state crackdown on independent media.

The Tut.by editors removed virtually all of the content published on most of their social media channels in 2020 and the first half of 2021, at the height of the post-election protests. They said the archives were still in their possession and were simply “hidden from public view.”

Tut.by is currently under investigation after a mid-June request by the Interior Ministry officials to recognize the news portal and its social media accounts as “extremist.” The initial hearing at a Minsk court, scheduled for 24 June, has been postponed to a later date.

The newsroom also removed the log-in verification option from its Telegram channel so as to be able to rename the channel on short notice in case the news outlet or its Telegram channel is officially labeled “extremist” by Belarusian courts. “We wouldn’t be able to do this immediately after the court verdict, so we decided to prepare in advance,” said the editors in a Telegram post.

Though some of the channel’s followers were concerned the channel, which has over half a million subscribers, was hacked or co-opted by thew authorities, Tut.by reassured readers by confirming to the Belarusian Association of Journalists that the channel was still in their hands.

“The Tut.by editors have confirmed to the Belarusian Association of Journalists that the Telegram channel @tutby_official remains under the control of the newsroom. Colleagues are asking you not to worry, no one was hacked. Tut.by is still with us, and we are with Tut.by!”

Tut.by’s main website was blocked in Belarus on 18 May 2021, while the media organisation’s bank accounts were frozen following accusations of tax fraud. A criminal investigation was launched against the media outlet’s managers, and 15 employees were detained. Many of them, including editor-in-chief Marina Zolotova, remain behind bars.

In December 2020, Belarusian authorities withdrew Tut.by’s media license following warnings the portal had received for ongoing coverage of the state crackdown on protests that erupted after a disputed presidential election in August 2020.

In May, Belarusian authorities adopted a number of amendments to existing laws regulating journalistic activity, media coverage of protests, and criminal liability of journalists. The amendments were criticised by the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Teresa Ribeiro, who said that the recently adopted laws “seriously contradict international human rights standards on freedom of expression and freedom of the media.”

In its 2021 World Press Freedom Index, Reporters Without Borders said Belarus was “the most dangerous country in Europe for journalists” and added “journalists were subjected to an unprecedented crackdown in an attempt to cover up the massive street protests.” According to the Belarusian Association of Journalists, 25 reporters remain behind bars today, with 77 detentions or arrests since the start of 2021.

Tanya Lokot is a a researcher based in Dublin, Ireland, who studies protest, digital media and internet freedom in Eastern Europe and beyond. This article was originally published by Global Voices. Reprinted with permission.