Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, center, attends a military parade marking Independence Day in Minsk, Belarus, July 3, 2018.
Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, center, attends a military parade marking Independence Day in Minsk, Belarus, July 3, 2018.

MINSK, BELARUS - Belarus on Wednesday detained at least six more journalists in Minsk, including a freelance correspondent for Deutsche Welle, in a crackdown on independent media, ostensibly over unauthorized access to a state news agency. 

The ex-Soviet country led by strongman Alexander Lukashenko on Tuesday detained at least four journalists from two popular news sites, accusing them of gaining "unauthorized access to computer information for reasons of personal gain."

The Council of Europe and Reporters Without Borders expressed concern at those detentions, while the Belarusian foreign ministry said they had "nothing to do with issues of press freedom."

Belarus' Investigative Committee said Wednesday that it had detained Paulyuk Bykowski, a Belarusian journalist who works for Deutsche Welle, Germany's public international broadcaster, after raiding his home.

Bykowksi's wife, Volha Bykowskaja, told Deutsche Welle that investigators had seized all their computers, devices and bank cards.

The Investigative Committee also said it had detained journalist Alexei Zhukov from Belarusians and the Market, a business weekly.

Earlier Wednesday, the editor in chief of the property news website Uladizlau Kuletski told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty that investigators were raiding its offices and seizing computers and had detained him and three other journalists.

The journalists were not answering their phones.

State news agency BelTA has accused the journalists of failing to pay subscription fees, with officials saying its "business reputation was harmed."

If found guilty, the journalists face up to two years in prison.

The harsh crackdown comes despite the fact that BelTA makes its stories freely accessible 15 minutes after subscribers see them.

Deutsche Welle correspondent Bykowski told RFE/RL that he had not read the agency's reports for a long time.

Relatives of one of the journalists detained Tuesday, Maria Zolotova, an editor at the news site, said she spent the night in a detention center and was remanded in custody for three days.

The whereabouts of three other detained journalists from were unclear.

Investigators confirmed they were probing the companies that run and another news site, BelaPAN as well as several other publishing and media groups.

The editor in chief of BelaPAN, Irina Levshina, told AFP that investigators had not allowed the company's lawyer to visit detained journalist Tatiana Korovenkova and were pressuring her to use a state-assigned lawyer.

Separately in the city of Brest, blogger and opposition activist Alexander Kabanov was detained Wednesday for allegedly insulting a policeman, independent journalist Tamara Shchepetkina said.

Belarus, ruled by authoritarian Lukashenko since 1994, is ranked 155th out of 180 in this year's Reporters Without Borders world press freedom index.