Saturday, October 23, 2021

Russian newspaper closes Belarus branch after journalist’s arrest

A popular Russian newspaper has closed its branch in Belarus after a local employee was arrested after a shootout that killed an opposition supporter and a security official.

Komsomolskaya Pravda announced the decision to close its Belarusian subsidiary on Tuesday night, citing “events of last year and especially last week”.

Last Wednesday, the Belarusian Information Ministry blocked access to the newspaper’s Belarusian website, which was visited by about 20,000 users daily, and two days later human rights advocates reported that one of its Belarusian journalists, Hinadze Mazyyka, was detained had gone.

Komsomolskaya Pravda in Belarus came under pressure after it ran a story about a shooting at an apartment in the Belarusian capital, Minsk, during which two people – an opposition supporter and an officer of the KGB, Belarus’ State Security Service – were killed. The news outlet published a comment by a friend of an opposition supporter, who described him in a positive light. Majeyka, 39, was the journalist who wrote the story.

Belarusian authorities reported the shootings last Tuesday, alleging that “a particularly dangerous criminal” opened fire on security officers when they appeared in their apartment looking for “individuals involved in terrorist activities.” Officials said a KGB officer was killed and the criminal was gunned down in retaliatory firing.

Belarus officials often referred to protesters at anti-government protests last year as “extremists” and “terrorists”. Massive protests erupted after election officials granted authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko a sixth term in the August 2020 presidential election, which the opposition and the West called a sham.

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Lukashenko’s government responded to the protests with violent crackdown, arresting more than 35,000 people and brutally beating thousands of them.

Mass arrests followed the shootings, too: Officers targeted social media users who posted comments about the incident, challenging the official narrative. According to Vyasna, a leading human rights group in Belarus, around 120 people have been arrested.

Vysana said that Mazeyka was detained in Moscow. The Kremlin would not confirm the allegations, spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, adding that authorities did not know where Mazyeka was detained.

Belarus’ Interior Ministry on Monday confirmed Mazeyka’s arrest on charges of inciting social enmity and insulting a government official. If convicted, the journalist faces up to 12 years in prison – and so do those detained over social media posts.

Peskov said on Wednesday that the Kremlin regretted that Komsomolskaya Pravda had closed its operations in Belarus and hoped that Mazheyka’s detention “is not connected with her work as a journalist.”

A Kremlin spokesman said Moscow would continue its talks with the authorities in Belarus “to address our situation”, but added that Russia could not help the journalist because he is not a Russian citizen.

Following the disputed presidential election last year, authorities in Belarus shut down the largest independent media outlets, blocked access to popular news sites and targeted raids and detained journalists. A total of 28 journalists in Belarus, including Mazeyka, are currently behind bars, either already convicted and sentenced or awaiting trial.

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