In a little over two years, the team at Tut.by have seen their news outlet go from being one of the most read in Belarus to being labeled an “extremist” organization whose staff are equated with criminals.
Currently five of the media outlet’s journalists are standing trial in a case that many analysts see as a somber reminder of President Alexander Lukashenko’s war on the press.
Those closely following charges filed against the Belarusian media have grim predictions for how the Tut.by trial will play out. In the past two years, Minsk has sentenced several journalists to lengthy prison terms.
But even after authorities forced the closure of Tut.by, members of its surviving team are reconvening in exile and under a new name to ensure audiences still have access to news.
Tut.by drew the government’s ire for its coverage of the August 2020 contested presidential elections, when Lukashenko claimed victory and opposition candidates were detained or forced to flee. When demonstrations broke out across the country, authorities arrested scores of protesters and journalists.
The government later branded Tut.by and other independent outlets as “extremist.” In May 2021, officials raided the newsroom, blocked access to its website and detained staff, including the editor-in chief Marina Zolatova and general director Lyudmila Chekina. A few months later, Tut.by was declared "extremist" and banned.
A closed-door trial for Zolatova and Chekina on charges including tax evasion, “inciting hatred,” and endangering the country’s national security, started in the capital, Minsk, on January 9.
Their colleagues Volha Loika, Alena Talkachova and Katsyaryna Tkachenka, are being tried in absentia. All three had left the country earlier, according to the Belarusian human rights group Viasna.
For Tut.by co-founder Kirill Voloshin, there is no question that the trial is a sham.
“I don’t think that there is any significance to this trial because it’s just a show for Lukashenko and his authority,” Voloshin told VOA from his new home in Lithuania. “It’s just a showcase that you should keep your mouth shut.”
“There’s no justice,” Voloshin added. “It’s just some imitation of a court.”
He believes the government came down hard on Tut.by because it had such wide readership and influence in Belarus. At its height, around 70% of internet users in Belarus read Tut.by, Voloshin estimated.
The Belarus embassy in Washington did not reply to VOA’s email requesting comment.
The journalists will almost certainly be sentenced to lengthy prison terms, according to Gulnoza Said, the Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists.
“It is very clear that the Lukashenko regime is prosecuting every single journalist, every single critic, everybody who expresses or expressed in the past any dissenting views,” Said told VOA. “The difference between Lukashenko now and Lukashenko in the past is that now there is no pretext. The masks are off.”
“Officials are not even trying to pretend that the reasons behind this prosecution are not political,” she said.
The New York-based media advocate was especially concerned about the conditions journalists face in prison, noting that political detainees are often treated worse than criminals in Belarus.
If convicted, Zolatava and Chekina both face up to 12 years in prison.
“Belarusian prisons are notorious for really harsh conditions for all prisoners,” she said. “Many journalists, as well as political opponents of Lukashenko, are probably facing harsher conditions in prisons.”
More than 1,400 political prisoners are currently detained in Belarus, according to rights group Viasna.
The country is among the worst jailers of journalists in the world, with 33 reporters currently behind bars, either awaiting trial or serving sentences, according to the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ). Two of those detained contributed to VOA’s sister network Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
“This is their sacrifice for freedom of speech,” said Volha Khvoin, who is on BAJ’s board.
Belarusian authorities are destroying independent media “to make sure that the residents of Belarus have no access or the most difficult access to non-state media,” Khvoin wrote in an email to VOA.
People in Belarus can use a VPN to access the websites that authorities blocked, she said, but that can bring its own risks, since police often check the phones of people they detain.
A lack of access to independent media affects people’s understanding of the world, including the war in Ukraine, according to Khvoin.
People who don’t read independent media are more likely to support the Russian invasion of Ukraine, for instance, she said.
“Propaganda changes the consciousness of a person,” she said.
Media in exile
Due to the threat of imprisonment, few independent reporters still work inside Belarus. The BAJ estimates that around 400 reporters left the country since 2020, many of whom set up in Lithuania and Poland.
Voloshin, who helped found Tut.by in 2000, is working with other exiled colleagues to found a successor to the media outlet.
Named Zerkalo — which means “mirror” in Russian — the website is working to replicate Tut.by’s coverage of Belarus and reconnect with audiences in and outside the country.
Alongside its reporting on politics and human rights issues, Zerkalo is monitoring the case against Tut.by’s team. When the trial began, it issued a statement saying the case “was fabricated from start to finish and appeared only because the regime is afraid of journalists.”
Zerkalo is part of a broader effort from exiled media to keep reporting on what’s happening inside Belarus.
The BAJ has coordinators in cities across Europe who are trying to help reestablish journalist networks from outside Belarus, said Khvoin, who is based in Warsaw.
“At the moment the ties between people from the Belarusian journalistic community have been preserved, and maybe they have become stronger in some way,” Khvoin wrote in an email to VOA. “Because in exile people need more support, contacts, maintaining life balance.”
To Voloshin, the spirit of Tut.by lives on in Zerkalo, and that gives him some hope for the future of his country.
“Tut.by’s mission was to report the truth on what’s happening in the country, highlighting the good and bad sides of what’s happening. That mission never disappeared,” Voloshin said. “This is one of the most important ways to demolish the dictatorship.”