Reporters Without Borders is very concerned about the continuing harassment of investigative journalist Maryna Koktysh, the deputy editor of the Minsk-based independent newspaper Narodnaya Volya, over her coverage of a case involving senior police officers and interior ministry officials in the southeastern city of Homyel.
"The independent press has just done its duty by reporting developments in a scandal implicating senior officials that elicited comments from President Alexander Lukashenko," Reporters Without Borders said. "As a journalist, Maryna Koktysh should not be regarded as a police auxiliary or as an accomplice to the criminal activity she covers."
Police raided Narodnaya Volya's Minsk headquarters on 17 February, seizing her computer and some of her files in the course of a one-hour search. Officials said the raid was ordered by the Homyel police and prosecutor's office in connection with her coverage of the trial of three Homyel police officers and Viktar Yermakow, the head of the interior ministry's Anti-Corruption and Organised Crime Department, on charges of abuse of authority and blackmailing KGB agents.
Held behind closed doors before the supreme court since October 2009, the trial ended on 17 February with three of the officials getting jail sentences ranging from three to four years. The case has led to a series of revelations about corrupt practices within the police and security agencies and President Lukashenko even publicly accused one of the defendants of having hunting lodges built illegally in Zhobin, in an area when senior officials and state company executives hunt illegally.
Koktysh told Reporters Without Borders that the police questioned her in connection with a defamation action brought by a senior KGB official, whose identify has not been confirmed, over reports posted on several opposition websites about the hunting lodges. Details of the lawsuit are still not clear.
She cannot provide more details as she had to undertake to treat the case as confidential. The defamation action has been brought against persons unknown, so Koktysh is not directly targeted, at least for the time being. But there is reason to think that the reason her computer was seized was to try to establish whether she wrote the offending website articles.
Andrei Bastunets of the Belarus Association of Journalists (BAJ), a Reporters Without Borders partner organisation, said he was concerned that Koktysh's status "could change from being a witness to being a suspect" and that she could end up being charged with criminal defamation, which is punishable by imprisonment.
Reporters Without Borders shares the concern of the BAJ, which won the European Parliament's Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought in 2004. Koktysh is a high-profile journalist with a reputation for investigative reporting. She has worked for Narodnaya Volya since its launch in 1995 and has been its deputy editor since 2006.
She was the first reporter to probe the disappearances of government opponents Viktar Hanchar and Yury Zakharanka, businessman Anatol Krasuski and cameraman Dzmitry Zavadski. On her initiative, Narodnaya Volya published documents demonstrating the existence of death squads involved in political assassinations in Belarus. She has repeatedly been threatened and harassed by the authorities and was illegally stripped of her parliamentary and government press accreditation.
Reporters Without Borders regards the raid on Narodnaya Volya and the interrogation of Koktysh as attempts to intimidate her and calls on the authorities to put a stop to the harassment.
After appearing to relax pressure on the independent media slightly as part of a bid to revive its relationship with the European Union, Belarus has now clearly embarked on new crackdown. On 13 January, the justice ministry ordered the BAJ to stop issuing press cards to journalists and stop providing them with legal aid.
On 1 February, the president promulgated a repressive Internet law and, a few days later, the authorities announced new regulations placing additional restrictions on the dissemination of foreign news media.