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‘It’s just madness’ Belarusian journalist faces 12 years in prison over an article that was deleted immediately after publication

Source: Meduza
Gennady Mozheiko / Facebook

Belarusian journalist Gennady Mozheiko has been in custody for more than ten days. A longtime reporter for the recently shuttered Belarusian edition of the Russian tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda, Mozheiko was arrested in early October after publishing an article about a deadly shootout between an IT worker and security forces in Minsk. The article was only online for a few minutes before the publication took it down to “avoid conflicts.” Nevertheless, in the days that followed, the Belarusian authorities blocked the website of Komsomolskaya Pravda in Belarus (citing national security reasons) and took Gennady Mozheiko into custody. On October 11, Komsomolskaya Pravda surmised that because Mozheiko hadn’t been released, he must have been indicted on charges of “inciting social hatred or discord” and “insulting a government official.” Under Belarusian law, these felonies are punishable by up to 12 years in prison.

Avoiding conflicts

Gennady Mozheiko worked as a reporter for Komsomolskaya Pravda in Belarus (the Belarusian edition of the popular Russian tabloid) for more than 10 years. He mainly covered the automotive beat, as well as air transport, technology, and the city of Minsk.

“He’s a great colleague, who you can always rely on. He has a very large circle of contacts with a variety of experts. He dug into topics from top to bottom and this was valued. When his eyes lit up it was safe to say that he was bringing in a real exclusive, which would later be reprinted by other media,” Olga Erokhina, Mozheiko’s former colleague who now works for Belsat TV, told Meduza. 

According to another colleague, on September 28, Mozheiko was “on website duty.” That day, a KGB officer was killed during a firefight in Minsk. According to the intelligence agency, the officer was shot dead by a “particularly dangerous criminal,” whose apartment security forces stormed in search of “people involved in terrorism.” The shooter, who was killed when security officers returned fire, turned out to be Andrey Zeltsar, a 31-year-old IT worker for the company EPAM Systems.

Mozheiko began gathering information about the shootout. He managed to get in touch with one of Zeltsar’s former schoolmates and published a short article with quotes from his interview with her. The article was up on the website for only a few minutes before Komsomolskaya Pravda in Belarus took it down. One of the publication’s former employees explained that it was “deleted to avoid any conflicts.” 

Nevertheless, on September 29, the Belarusian authorities blocked the website of Komsomolskaya Pravda in Belarus. The country’s Information Ministry released a statement saying that the site had published an article that “contains information that could produce threats to national security” by “artificially escalating tension and confrontation in society [and] between society and the state.”

Former employees of Komsomolskaya Pravda’s Belarusian edition told Meduza that the article about Andrey Zeltsar was just a pretense for blocking the tabloid’s website; its reporters had been under increasing pressure from the Belarusian authorities ever since they actively covered the mass opposition protests that erupted in Belarus in August 2020. State-owned press kiosks, for example, stopped selling the tabloid’s Belarusian edition altogether.

The independent news site underscored that at the time Komsomolskaya Pravda in Belarus was blocked, it was “practically the last non-state socio-political print publication” distributed on a national scale.

A ticket to Odesa

Komsomolskaya Pravda’s problems didn’t end when the website of its Belarusian edition was blocked. On October 1, Gennady Mozheiko disappeared.

His sister, Anna Mozheiko, told Meduza that Gennady was well-aware that he could face problems with the authorities over the article about Andrey Zeltsar. However, he had been planning to leave the country for a while. According to Anna, Gennady had already booked a ticket to Odesa, Ukraine; he was supposed to fly through Moscow.

The last time Anna spoke to her brother was on September 30. He was staying at a hotel in Moscow and said that “everything [was] fine.” He was supposed to fly to Odesa on the afternoon of October 1, but never got on the flight. His relatives were also unable to get in contact with him.

According to Belarusian police officials, Gennady Mozheiko was arrested in Belarus on October 1. Allegedly, he had flown to Russia beforehand and tried to board a flight to a “third country.” However, the Russian authorities not only prevented his departure but also ordered him to leave Russia, citing an alleged prior decision by law enforcement agencies that deemed his stay in the country “undesirable.” As a result, police officials claimed, Mozheiko had no choice but to return to Belarus, where he was promptly detained. 

That said, the journalist’s relatives don’t believe the official version of the story. Irina Mozheiko, Gennady’s mother, told Meduza that KGB officers raided the family’s Minsk apartment on September 30 — but they didn’t ask Gennady’s relatives about his whereabouts or when they expected him to come home. What’s more, Komsomolskaya Pravda initially reported that Mozheiko was arrested in Moscow and then taken to Belarus. 

‘An inappropriate reaction’ 

Following Gennady Mozheiko’s arrest. Komsomolskaya Pravda announced that it was shutting down its branch in Belarus. In a statement, the tabloid said this decision was made after taking into account “the events of the past year and especially the past week.” Komsomolskaya Pravda editor-in-chief Vladimir Sungorkin denounced the Belarusian authorities’s actions as “arbitrariness” and an “inappropriate reaction to a completely innocent article.” 

In turn, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov “expressed regret” over Komsomolskaya Pravda halting its operations in Belarus. “We still believe and are convinced that all legal rights of journalists must be ensured,” he said. At the same time, Peskov emphasized that because Gennady Mozheiko is a Belarusian citizen, “Moscow has no legal grounds for protecting his interests or for any interference in his relations with the Belarusian authorities.” “We would like to hope that the actions against the Komsomolskaya Pravda journalist aren’t related to his journalistic work,” the Kremlin’s spokesman added.

The former leadership of Komsomolskaya Pravda’s Belarusian edition declined to give comments for this article for security reasons.

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

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

According to Gennady Mozheiko’s relatives, there’s hardly any information about what’s happening to him now. Due to coronavirus restrictions, they aren’t allowed to visit him in custody. Though a lawyer has spoken to him twice in connection with investigative activities, the attorney is bound by a non-disclosure agreement.

On October 11, Komsomolskaya Pravda reported that Gennady Mozheiko had been indicted on felony charges of “inciting social hatred or discord” and “insulting a government official” — felonies that are punishable by up to 12 years in prison. “This conclusion can be drawn from the fact that the journalist wasn’t released, and under Belarusian laws, a charge must be brought no later than 10 days after the arrest (Mozheiko was detained on October 1),” the tabloid surmised. Belarusian officials have yet to confirm the charges brought against Mozheiko. 

Komsomolskaya Pravda also reported that Mozheiko is in custody at a pre-trial detention center in the city of Zhodino, where he is being kept in a coronavirus quarantine cell. “He isn’t allowed to be visited by lawyers and relatives, and it’s even forbidden to send packages,” the daily wrote. Following Mozheiko’s arrest, it was initially reported that he was in custody at the notorious Okrestina Street detention center in Minsk. 

Mozheiko’s former colleague Olga Erokhina told Meduza that in her opinion, Gennady ended up “on the chopping block” over basic reporting. “When such a situation occurs [as with the death of Andrey Zeltsar], every journalist tries to find experts and contact relatives. [Gennady] worked like a professional, he was the first to find an acquaintance of Andrey Zeltsar and speak with her. She simply said three phrases about what kind of person Zeltsar was. Imprisoning [someone] for such texts is just madness.”

Update. On October 13, Minsk’s Partizansky District Court dismissed an appeal against the detention of journalist Gennady Mozheiko. The hearing took place behind closed doors. According to TASS, the judge said the ruling can be appealed at the Minsk City Court. At the time of this writing, Belarusian officials had yet to officially confirm the nature of the charges against Mozheiko.

Story by Alexey Shumkin

Translation by Eilish Hart

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