KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Belarusian authorities on Wednesday blocked the website of the country’s leading independent news agency and detained some staff members 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 apartments of at least six of its staff members. The agency’s website was no longer available online. BelaPAN is the oldest and only large independent news agency in Belarus, operating since 1991. It’s been one of the last major independent media outlets still operating.
After the raids, the authorities detained BelaPAN’s chief editor Iryna Leushyna, accountant Katsyaryna Boyeva and the agency’s former director Dzmitry Navazhylau. Belarus’ Investigative Committee said in an online statement that 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 members. “One can shut down independent media, detain its staff members, intimidate people, but no one call suppress thoughts and ideas,” the association said in a statement.
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 demonstrations with a massive crackdown that saw more than 35,000 people arrested and thousands beaten by police.
Belarusian authorities have ramped up the pressure against non-governmental organizations and independent media in recent weeks, 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.