KYIV -- Belarusian authorities have raided the Minsk offices of two independent news outlets and detained three journalists, claiming they illegally obtained information from a state-run news agency.
The Council of Europe human rights body on August 7 expressed "great concern" over the raid and detentions, which mark the latest moves in a broad crackdown on media that report critically of strongman President Alyaksandr Lukashenka and his government.
Tut.by, Belarus's largest online news outlet, reported early on August 7 that Minsk police officers had presented a warrant to search its offices and the those of BelaPan as part of the inquiry into the illegal access to information on the website of state-run BelTA news agency, which reports favorably about Lukashenka.
The Belarusian Investigative Committee said in a statement published on its website that computers from within the Tut.by and BelaPan offices, as well as those from a third outlet, Belarusskaya Nauka, used an account and password other than their own to access the paid-subscriber section of BelTA.
The committee said it had opened a criminal case after an inspection by Interior Ministry officers that uncovered 15,000 instances of unauthorized access to BelTA's exclusive section, where breaking news is often published five to 10 minutes before it hits the agency's public wire.
"The crime inflicted considerable damage" on BelTA, "leading to the illegal procurement and use of information protected from unauthorized access, as well as to the erosion of the enterprise's business reputation," the Investigative Committee said.
Marina Zolotova, editor in chief of Tut.by; Hanna Kaltyhina, Tut.by's production editor; and Tatyana Korovenkova, a BelaPAN journalist, were detained as persons of interest, according to the committee and the journalists' respective outlets.
Speaking to Belarusian news outlet Nasha Niva, BelTA Director Irina Akulovich called the journalists' actions "plain theft" and said they "did not pay money, but they used other people's passwords" to access the site's exclusive content.
According to Tut.by, the office raid began in the morning, with law enforcement agents blocking access to the outlets' several floors and preventing journalists from carrying out their work.
Tut.by, Belarus's largest online news source, reported that several documents had been seized while some employees were summoned to the Investigative Committee for questioning.
A statement issued by the spokesperson for the Council of Europe’s secretary-general called on the Belarusian authorities to conduct a quick investigation in the case and to free all the detained journalists.
"Legislation must be respected but investigations do not always require arrests which should be used as an ultimate tool," it said.
"Freedom of media is one of the most important human rights in a democratic society," the statement also said. "It should be thoroughly respected everywhere in Europe."
The raids and detentions were merely the latest moves by Belarusian authorities targeting independent news outlets that report critically of them and Lukashenka.
In June, Belarusian lawmakers passed controversial amendments to the country's media laws that they claimed were necessary to combat "fake news." The New York-based Committee To Protect Journalists* (CPJ) said the amendments were likely to lead to further censorship of the press in Belarus.
In July, a Minsk court sentenced Belarusian journalist Dzmitry Halko to four years in a guarded dormitory and forced labor after convicting him of assaulting two police officers. Halko told RFE/RL in an interview after his sentencing that he is innocent and said the case against him was retribution for his critical stance against Lukashenka and authorities.
Also in July, Natallya Radzina, the Poland-based chief editor of Charter97, another independent news site that is critical of Lukashenka, reported receiving death threats, which she believes is related to her work.
Other journalists and bloggers have been harassed and detained in recent months, according to the CPJ. Even more have been fined, according to the Paris-based media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF).
RSF ranked Belarus 155th in its 2017 World Press Freedom Index, which evaluates the level of press freedom in 180 countries each year.