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Killing Tut.by Belarus opens tax fraud case against the country’s leading independent media outlet

Source: Meduza

Belarus has opened a tax fraud case against the leadership of the country’s most prominent independent media outlet, Tut.by. On the morning of May 18, the financial police raided the Tut.by newsroom and the homes of a number journalists, including the apartment of editor-in-chief Marina Zolotova — who was taken away after the search. Tut.by’s website was also blocked, though it was quickly restored under an alternate address. Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya condemned the allegations and raids against Tut.by as the “premeditated murder” of an independent media outlet.

Belarus has opened a criminal case on large-scale evasion against the leadership of Tut.by — the country’s leading independent news outlet. The Belarusian State Control Committee claims that the media company’s legal entity, which has been a “resident” of Belarus Hi-Tech Park (HTP) since 2019 — providing it with certain tax exemptions, obtained revenue “not attributable to activities permitted for [HTP] residents.” The Control Committee alleges that this “unjustified use of state support” caused “damage” to the Belarusian state “on an especially large scale.”

Tut.by’s website was blocked — and not just in Belarus. During the day on May 18, the news site was inaccessible to Internet users inside and outside of the country (even when using a VPN). Soon afterward, the site reappeared under an alternate address, where Tut.by’s reporters are maintaining a live blog of what’s happening to their newsroom and colleagues. Later, it became known that Belarus’s Information Ministry had restricted access to the news outlet’s website, on the grounds that “the Attorney General’s Office found multiple facts of violations of the law on mass media as regards posting prohibited information.”

“In the building where Tut.by editor-in-chief Marina Zolotova lives, the door to the shared lobby on her floor [was] broken. Eyewitnesses say this happened around 10:20 a.m., there was a loud noise and a crash.”

The financial police raided the homes and offices of Tut.by journalists. Several of the news site’s editors, including editor-in-chief Marina Zolotova, reported that officers from the Financial Investigations Department had come to their apartments and were carrying out searches. The door leading to the floor Zolotova lives on was broken down. After the search, the financial police confiscated Zolotova’s devices and took her away through a backdoor, Tut.by wrote on Telegram. As she was being taken away, the editor-in-chief shouted that she — along with Tut By Media LLC director, Lyudmila Chekina, and the company’s head accountant, Angela Assad — could be facing tax evasion charges.

While searching the home of Tut.by correspondent Elena Tolkacheva, the financial police presented a search warrant, which confirmed that a criminal case had been launched against Chekina and Assad, the Belarusian news outlet Onliner reported. Allegedly, the media company’s director and head accountant “with the complicity of others, avoided paying VAT for 2020 on an especially large scale.” 

Security officers also arrived at the Tut.by newsroom, after which the journalists on the premises stopped answering their phones. The glass door leading to the newsroom was covered over with black plastic. Several other Tut.by journalists and photographers who arrived at the office after the raid began also stopped answering their phones. 

Yulia Chernyavskaya, the widow of Tut.by founder Yury Zisser, was admitted to a Minsk hospital after suffering a hypertensive crisis. According to Tut.by, an officer accompanied Chernyavskaya to the hospital — why the security forces came to her home beforehand remains unclear. At the time of writing, there weren’t any updates on Chernyavskaya’s condition.

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Law enforcement officers also visited companies affiliated with Tut.by, including the offices of Av.by (a Belarusian website for buying and selling cars) and Rabota.by (a local job site). During a meeting, an Av.by employee who had joined in remotely heard noises and demands for his colleagues to turn off their phones — he then lost his connection with the office. Security officers also arrived at the office of the Belarusian hosting service Hoster.by — the largest registrar and administrator of the Belarusian domain zones by/bel. Hoster.by is the hosting department of Tut.by’s parent company — Tut.by Electronic Business Center — and, according to its own data, provides services to more than 60 percent of all Belarusian websites. 

Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya (Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya) issued a statement in support of Tut.by, calling what is happening the “premeditated murder” of an independent outlet. “My team and I are already in touch with European Commission Head Ursula von der Leyen. We demand an urgent response from the EU [and] the urgent launch of a program to support independent media, protect journalists, and help them continue to work despite the repressions. We insist that it’s necessary to impose sanctions against all those responsible for the repression against newsrooms, journalists, and bloggers,” Tikhanovskaya stated

In November 2020, Tut.by journalist Katerina Borisevich was sentenced to six months in prison and fined. The criminal case was launched over an article she authored about the death of opposition activist Raman Bandarenka, who died of severe injuries after being detained by alleged plainclothes officers amid the wave of protests that followed last year’s contested presidential election in Belarus. A Minsk court found Borisevich guilty of divulging confidential medical information (her article cited medical tests that contradicted allegations from Belarusian officials that Bandarenka was drunk when he was admitted to the hospital). Taking into account time already served, Borisevich should be released on May 19, 2021. 

A Belarusian court deprived Tut.by of its media license in December 2020. The ruling came in response to a claim filed by the Belarusian Information Ministry. The lawsuit was grounded on warnings issued to the site due to allegedly false information contained in several articles published in August and September concerning the 2020 presidential election in Belarus. Nevertheless, the media outlet continued its work.

Also in December of last year, Belarusian security forces detained the leaders of the Press Club — an educational platform for journalists in Belarus, offering professional training sessions and lectures. It’s founder, Yulia Slutskaya, was detained at the airport on December 22, upon returning to Belarus from a vacation. Slutskaya and several other Press Club employees were charged with large-scale tax evasion and placed under arrest — with the exception of Sergey Yakupov, a Russian citizen who was expelled from Belarus.

We won’t give up Because you’re with us

Story by Pyotr Lokhov

Translated and updated by Eilish Hart

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