MINSK -- Financial police in Belarus have launched a probe against the country's largest independent online media outlet, Tut.by, in what the United States, human rights groups, and media freedom watchdogs denounced as the Belarusian authorities’ latest move in their crackdown on the country’s pro-democracy movement and free media.
The Department of Financial Investigations (DFR) at the Committee of State Control said on May 18 that the Tut Bai Media group was suspected of "evading taxes in extremely significant amounts" since 2019.
The announcement came shortly after law enforcement officers searched the offices of Tut.by and its affiliates Houser.by and Av.by, as well as the homes of several editors, including the outlet's chief editor, Maryna Zolatava.
The Tut.by website was inaccessible after the police searches were conducted early in the morning on May 18.
One of the co-founders of Tut.by, Kiryl Valoshin, told RFE/RL that the domain's portal was blocked. According to Tut.by, at least 12 of the site's employees have been detained, including journalists, editors, and accountants.
The Information Ministry said in a statement that access to Tut.by and its affiliates had been restricted due to what it called a "violation of the country's media law," namely by posting items filed by unregistered organizations.
Witnesses said the door in the corridor of the apartment block in Minsk where Zolatava lives was broken in by law enforcement when they raided her apartment in the morning.
“Today's raids are another example of a systematic effort to stifle independent voices and punish journalists for accurately reporting news. Belarusians need and deserve a free press,” U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price tweeted.
The U.S. Embassy in Minsk said in a statement that the Belarusian authorities “have stripped Tut.by of legal status as a media outlet; fined, jailed, and physically attacked its journalists; repeatedly maligned and threatened it; blocked its website; and appear intent on incapacitating it through a malign misuse of the tax laws.”
“Today’s actions against the biggest and the most popular news site of the country are part of a deliberate government policy to restrict uncensored information in the country,” the Belarusian Association of Journalists said in a statement.
Calling the case against Tut.by “a new attempt to silence the most well-known independent media in Belarus,” Christophe Deloire, executive director of Reporters Without Borders (RSF), urged the United Nations and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to “ensure respect for the right to the freedom to inform" in the country.
Crisis In Belarus
Read our coverage as Belarusians continue to demand the resignation of Alyaksandr Lukashenka amid a brutal crackdown on protesters. The West refuses to recognize him as the country's legitimate leader after an August 9 election considered fraudulent.
The blocking of the Tut.by website is "a full-scale assault on the right to freedom of expression and media freedom in Belarus, and leaves a gaping wound in the country’s access to independent sources of information," according to Amnesty International.
The exiled leader of the Belarusian opposition, Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, called the move against Tut.by the "premeditated murder of independent media."
"[Belarusian authorities] are killing media...they are killing us on the streets and in jails," Tsikhanouskaya said in her video statement on YouTube.
"We demand an immediate reaction of the European Union, an expedited launch of a program of support of independent media and protection of journalists and help provided to them so that they could continue their work, despite the repressions. We insist that sanctions must be imposed against all who are responsible for the repressions against editorial groups, journalists, and bloggers," she added.
In a statement on Facebook, the European Union delegation to Belarus said that “freedom of the media must be upheld” in Belarus.
Tut.by has been “the flagship of Belarusian journalism for the past 20 years, read and appreciated by most Internet users in the country and many beyond it, as well as by diplomats working with Belarus,” it said.
Belarusian authorities have stepped up their repression of journalists and bloggers ever since the start of mass protests sparked by the August 9 presidential election.
Tens of thousands of people in Belarus have been swept up in the crackdown. Protesters say the election was rigged in favor of Lukashenka, who has ruled Belarus since 1994.
Dozens of reporters have been temporarily detained or jailed over the ensuing nine months.
Following the presidential election, "dozens of socio-political and media sites were blocked in Belarus, and a number of print outlets were forced to stop publishing," according to the Belarusian Association of Journalists.
As of May 18, 16 journalists and other media workers were behind bars, it said.
Lukashenka has insisted he won the August 9 election and has refused to negotiate with the opposition.
Tsikhanouskaya says she was forced to leave Belarus for Lithuania a day after the August 9 poll amid threats to herself and her family.