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‘The only correct decision’ Komsomolskaya Pravda shutters branch in Belarus after authorities block its website and arrest reporter

Source: Meduza

The popular Russian tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda is shutting down its branch in Belarus. In an editorial published on Tuesday, October 5, the newspaper explained that this decision was made upon considering “the events of the past year and especially the past week.” Komsomolskaya Pravda said that all of the staff from its Belarusian edition would be offered compensation or jobs in other branches of the company. A week earlier, the website Komsomolskaya Pravda in Belarus was blocked after the tabloid published an article about Andrey Zeltsar, an IT worker who was involved in a shootout with security forces in Minsk on September 28. The reporter who authored the article, Gennady Mozheiko, was arrested on charges of inciting hatred and insulting a government official. He is currently in custody at the Okrestina Street detention center in Minsk. 

On September 28, Belarusian security forces stormed the apartment of Andrey Zeltsar, an IT worker for the company EPAM Systems. The raid resulted in a shootout; Zeltsar fatally wounded a KGB officer and subsequently killed by security forces.

Later that day, the Belarusian edition of the Russian tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda published an article about the firefight on its website. The article, authored by reporter Gennady Mozheiko, included comments by Zeltsar’s former classmate. She said that he was “positive, honest, and spoke up for the truth.” This acquaintance also expressed astonishment over Zeltsar’s involvement in the firefight, saying she “didn’t know what happened to him.”

The next day, the website Komsomolskaya Pravda in Belarus stopped working. The Belarusian state-owned telecommunications operator Beltelecom said that access to it was restricted on the basis of a decision from the country’s Information Ministry. The daily’s website was also rendered inaccessible inside Russia. The Belarusian Information Ministry said it decided to block the tabloid’s website because it “contains information that could produce threats to national security.”

Komsomolskaya Pravda editor-in-chief Vladimir Sungorkin surmised that “three minutes after publication, smart people decided” that the interview could be read as “whitewashing a terrorist.” “The authorities of Belarus [made] a political decision that the media field should be 100 percent controlled, and they aren’t happy with Komsomolskaya Pravda. This resource, in their imagination, is under the control of Russia,” Sungorkin maintained.

A few days later, on October 2, the Belarusian human rights group Viasna reported that Gennady Mozheiko had been arrested. It later emerged that he was in custody at the notorious Okrestina Street detention center in Minsk.

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Mozheiko’s detention

Initially, Komsomolskaya Pravda reported that Gennady Mozheiko was detained in Moscow and then taken to Belarus. The journalist’s mother, Irina, told the daily that when she spoke with her son via video call on the afternoon of September 30, he was staying at a hotel in the Russian capital. On the night of October 1–2, Mozheiko called his mother again and said that he had been detained and was in the Okrestina Street detention center in Minsk. 

Mozheiko’s mother also said that KGB officers searched the reporter’s apartment in Belarus prior to his arrest and “seized flash drives, stickers, and badges” (Mozheiko wasn’t present at the time of the search). The search warrant was reportedly issued on the same two criminal charges: inciting hatred and insulting a government official. 

Gennady Mozheiko / Facebook

Komsomolskaya Pravda editor-in-chief Vladimir Sungorkin told RIA Novosti on October 2 that Mozheiko was “detained in Moscow and taken out yesterday. “He’s a Belarusian citizen, although our employee,” Sungorkin added in an interview with Ekho Moskvy.

The Belarusian Interior Ministry disclosed details about Mozheiko’s arrest on October 4. The head of the ministry’s Department of Citizenship and Migration, Alexey Begun, said that the reporter was detained by security officers inside Belarus on October 1. 

According to Begun, Mozheiko ended up back in Minsk after travelling to Russia and attempting to fly from there to a third country. Allegedly, Russian authorities prevented the reporter’s planned departure, but also ordered him to leave Russia — forcing Mozheiko to return to Belarus. “Mozheiko, in accordance with the established procedure, left the territory of Russia and arrived in the Republic of Belarus, where he was subsequently detained,” Begun stated.

A foreign national whose stay in Russia is deemed “undesirable” is legally obliged to leave the country of their own accord. However, they are not required by law to return to their country of citizenship. Deportation is only provided for in the event that a foreign national fails to leave the country on time or is being held in custody. 

‘We simply don’t know’

During a press conference on Wednesday, October 6, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that Komsomolskaya Pravda shuttering its Belarusian branch was “by all appearances, the only correct decision.” “We still believe and are convinced that all legal rights of journalists must be ensured,” he added. 

When pressed on whether the Kremlin would attempt to start a dialogue with Minsk on the subject, Peskov insisted that it was domestic issue:

“I wouldn’t like to comment on how the Belarusian authorities are building relations with Belarusian media. Because de jure this is still a Belarusian media outlet. And, of course, this — the actions of the Belarusian authorities towards Belarusian citizens — shouldn’t be the subject of our comments. We have not commented on this before and we won’t do so now. But I’d like to say once again that we would like to hope that the actions against the Komsomolskaya Pravda journalist aren’t related to his journalistic work.”

Asked by Meduza’s correspondent if the Russian side could confirm the Belarusian Interior Ministry’s claim that Mozheiko was arrested in Minsk, Peskov said, “no we really can’t.” “We simply don’t know where and by whom he was detained. We don’t have such information,” he claimed. The Kremlin’s spokesman also said he “didn’t know” if Russian authorities prevented Mozheiko from travelling to a third country. “You probably need to contact our border services and so on,” he told Meduza.

Text by Eilish Hart

Cover Photo: “Komsomolskaya Pravda in Belarus” / Facebook

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