State-run news agency vs iconic media outlet: Editor-in-chief on trial in Minsk

The trial of Maryna Zolatava, editor-in-chief of the popular news portal, has started at 10.00 on Tuesday in Minsk.

The hearing is taking place in the building of Maskouski district court as there is a large spacious courtroom. Zolatava was greeted with two-minute applause; judge Alyaksandr Petrash banned recording in court.

Maryna Zolatava remains the only accused person in the so-called BelTA case. Other persons involved – 14 employees of various media outlets – were released from criminal prosecution, but held administratively liable. In addition to paying off the fines imposed, the journalists had to compensate for losses (in each case, the sum ranged from 3,000 to 17,000 Belarusian rubles).

She was charged under Part 2 of Article 425 of the Criminal Code (inaction of an official). The maximum penalty for this article is 5 years in prison. Earlier, she was suspected of ‘unauthorized access to computer information’ (part 2 of article 349 of the Criminal Code), but then the prosecution under this article was stopped ‘in connection with a crime that had not been committed’.

The plaintiffs are state-run news agency BelTA and SB Belarus Segodnya Publishing House. According to the statement of prosecution, the losses BelTA suffered amounted to 52,320 Belarusian rubles; SB – 18,172. Ihar Pankou, BelTA defense lawyer, applied for in-camera hearing referring to the fact that there might be ‘state secrets’ in the materials of the case, but his motion was rejected.

During the period from January 4, 2017 to July 23, 2018 Zolatava was not performing her duties ‘by intent’, which made the crime possible; Zolatava did not prevent her colleagues from ‘misusing a username and password’ to BelTA premium content, the prosecutor stated. The username and the password are reported to have belonged to the newspaper Respublika.

The editor-in chief has not admitted her guilt, “I believe that my actions do not constitute a crime,” she said.

It should be recalled that an unprecedented wave of media workers’ arrests started in Belarus in August, 2018.

After Iryna Akulovich, Director of the state-run news agency BelTA, had reported ‘illegal access to their premium content’, the Belarusian Investigative Committee initiated a criminal case. According to the authorities’ version, some employees of the above-mentioned media outlets have used another person’s password and got information owned by the Lukashenka mouthpiece over the past two years. journalists Halina Ulasik, Maryna Zolatava, Hanna Kaltyhina, Ulyana Babayed, Dzmitry Bobryk, Hanna Yermachonak, BelaPAN editors Tatsyana Karavyankova, Iryna Leushyna and Andrey Serada, Deutsche Welle correspondent Paulyuk Bykouski and the Belarusians and Market journalist Alyaksei Zhukau were detained. As part of the case, four journalists of the property portal were interrogated. A few days later, all the journalists were released from custody, but they are still under gag order. All the suspects in the BelTA case are banned from leaving the country.

As reported earlier, Dzmitry Bobryk wrote that after a three-hour interrogation in the Investigative Committee on August 7, he signed a cooperation agreement. According to him, there were direct threats to him and his relatives. However, after law enforcers realized they would get no information. their pressure on him intensified, Bobryk claimed.

The Belarusian Association of Journalists called the situation a ‘flagrant violation of freedom of expression and media freedom’. According to the BAJ, the actions of law enforcement agencies were ‘excessive’.