A popular Russian newspaper has shut down its branch in Belarus after one of its local staff was arrested in the wake of a shootout that left an opposition supporter and a security officer dead.
Komsomolskaya Pravda announced the decision to close its Belarusian subsidiary on Tuesday night, citing "the events of the past year and especially the past week."
Last Wednesday, the Belarusian Ministry of Information blocked access to the newspaper's Belarusian website, visited by some 20,000 users daily, and two days later human rights advocates reported that one of its Belarusian journalists, Hienadz Mazheyka, was detained.
Komsomolskaya Pravda in Belarus came under pressure after it ran a story about a shootout in an apartment in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, 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 from a friend of the opposition supporter, who described him in a positive light. Mazheyka, 39, was the journalist who wrote the story.
Belarusian authorities reported the shootout last Tuesday, alleging that "an especially dangerous criminal" opened fire on security officers after they showed up at his apartment looking for "individuals involved in terrorist activities." Authorities said one of the KGB officers was killed and the perpetrator was killed by return fire.
Belarus' authorities often referred to protesters at anti-government demonstrations last year as "extremists" and "terrorists." The huge protests came after election officials gave authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko a sixth term in the August 2020 presidential election that the opposition and the West have denounced as a sham.
Lukashenko's government responded to the protests with a violent crackdown, arresting more than 35,000 people and badly beating thousands of them.
Mass arrests followed the shootout too: the authorities targeted social media users that posted comments about the incident, challenging the official narrative. Some 120 people have been arrested, according to Viasna, a prominent human rights group in Belarus.
Viasna said that Mazheyka was detained in Moscow. The Kremlin wouldn't confirm the allegation, with spokesman Dmitry Peskov saying that authorities don't have the information about where Mazheyka was detained.
Belarus' Interior Ministry on Monday confirmed Mazheyka's arrest on the 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 on Wednesday said the Kremlin regrets that Komsomolskaya Pravda ceased its operation in Belarus and expressed hope that Mazheyka's detention "isn't linked to his work as a journalist."
The Kremlin spokesman said Moscow would continue its dialogue with authorities in Belarus "to relay our position," but added that Russia can't help the journalist as he is not a Russian citizen.
After the disputed presidential election last year, authorities in Belarus shut down the biggest independent media outlets, blocked access to popular news sites and targeted journalists with raids and detentions. A total of 28 journalists in Belarus, including Mazheyka, are currently behind bars, either already convicted and sentenced or awaiting trial.