Belarus raids independent news sites in media crackdown

Moscow (AFP) –


Belarus on Thursday barred access to the country's oldest news organisation and raided the offices of several regional newspapers as President Alexander Lukashenko's regime clamps down on media not under state control.

Authorities in the ex-Soviet country, which is in the throes of a months-long crackdown on dissent, blocked the online publication Nasha Niva over accusations it had published illegal content.

Belarus' KGB security services also raided its offices as well as those of several regional publications across the country.

The media crackdown comes a day after one of Lukashenko's main challengers, Viktor Babaryko, was sentenced to 14 years in prison.

Nasha Niva -- founded in 1906 under the Russian Empire -- said on social media that raids took places at the homes of four of its editors and that two including its editor-in-chief Yegor Martinovich were detained.

It said that it had lost contact with one editor, Andrei Dynko, while Martinovich's wife said on Facebook he was in such bad shape after the raid at their home that he needed treatment in detention.

Nasha Niva said on social media that the raids were carried out as part of a probe into actions that grossly violate public order.

The opposition-leaning site covered anti-Lukashenko protests that erupted last year and many of its staff have been interrogated or spent time in jail.

"Nasha Niva is not just a website, it's the oldest Belarusian newspaper," exiled opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya said in a video posted on Twitter.

"I call on the international community to provide practical support for our independent media and journalists," she added.

Separately, the Belarusian Association of Journalists reported that the editor-in-chief of another independent news site, had been detained and that an outlet which covers the IT sector had also been blocked.

- Regional outlets targeted -

Security officers then came to two regional newspapers.

According to Viasna, the KGB raided the editorial offices of the internet publication Intex-press in Baranovichi, a city south-west of Minsk.

Brestskaya Gazeta, an independent newspaper based in the city of Brest on the Polish border, said KGB officers had also come to its offices.

The move to bar access to Nasha Niva is part of a broad crackdown in the wake of historic opposition protests last year.

Journalists who covered the mass demonstrations have come under mounting pressure in recent months, with several receiving long jail terms.

Popular news website was blocked in May and several of its employees arrested on tax evasion charges.

Lukashenko, the long-serving authoritarian leader who sparked the rallies by claiming a sixth presidential term, has drawn condemnation from the West whose leaders say the vote was not free or fair.

A leading opposition figure and former banker, Babaryko, who was considered one of Lukashenko's strongest opponents in the elections, was jailed for 14 years this week on contested fraud charges.

Western nations have slapped a slew of sanctions on Lukashenko and his regime but they appear to have had limited effect as he maintains backing from key ally and creditor Russia.

Most recently, leaders in the West targeted key sectors of the struggling Belarusian economy to punish Lukashenko's government for intercepting a Ryanair plane in May and arresting an opposition activist and his girlfriend on board.