BREAKING: Minsk Court Files Verdict In BelTA Case

Chief editor of TUT.BY Marina Zolotova was found guilty in BelTA case and sentenced to a fine.

The verdict was passed by the court of Zavodski district of Minsk on Monday, 4 March.

Marina Zolotova was sentenced to a fine of 300 basic values (BYN7,650/~$3,570 – note BelarusFeed) under Part 2 of Article 425 of the Criminal Code (inaction of an official – note BelarusFeed). The penalty under the article ranges from a fine to five years in prison.

Marina Zolotova has travel restrictions imposed on her until the sentence enters into legal force. She can appeal the verdict.

Chief editor of TUT.BY thanked everyone who supported during the trial as she commented on the verdict:

“I haven’t yet decided whether I would appeal. Frankly, I didn’t expect the sentence to be softer than what was requested by the prosecutor.”

“For now, I just want to have some rest from it all. Thanks to all journalists who followed my case and thanks to my relatives,” Marina Zolotova said with tears in her eyes.

One month, 58 volumes of the criminal case

During the debates, the prosecutor demanded a fine of 1000 basic values (25.5 thousand BYN, or about €10,000). Marina Zolotova claimed: she committed no criminal wrongdoing.

The trial lasted for a little less than a month. The court examined 58 volumes of the criminal case, interrogated witnesses, many of who had claimed pressure and intimidation, and the defendant.

This is how the chairman of the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ) Andrei Bastunets commented on the first week of the trial:

“Neither BelTA nor BelTA customers took any measures to protect the passwords of paid subscription, they could be used by almost anyone.

That might be because the subscription didn’t have a big added value, as all the articles were open for public access on the BelTA website in just a few minutes. 

Zolotava is charged with the inaction by an official. However, the discussion in court revolves around other things all the time.

Former defendants pleaded guilty to using passwords under the pressure of the investigation (which becomes evident in court) and paid incredibly inflated damages.

However, the court keeps addressing the issue, although Zolatava is charged under an entirely different article of the Criminal Code.”

TUT.BY vs BelTA trial was widely covered by the independent media in Belarus.

What is BelTA case?

The BelTA case is the prosecution against editors and journalists of several independent media accused of unauthorized access to the paid section of the state news agency.

Last August, at least 15 journalists from independent news outlets were detainedtheir homes were searched. Police searched the offices of TUT.BY, BelaPAN and other media outlets, they seized computers and documents.

Shortly afterward, international organizations, human rights activists, foreign media expressed their concern and condemned journalists detentions.

The EU called on Minsk to free journalists. The American, British, Swedish and Lithuanian diplomats visited TUT.BY to talk to its founder Yury Zisser, and express their support.

The prosecution was later stopped ‘in view of the non-existence of a crime’ and the charges were later replaced with administrative liability. But the case against Marina Zolotova escalated. 

For the first time in the modern history of Belarus, the editor-in-chief was charged and tried for professional activity.

Why is it important?

The Belarusian Association of Journalists described 2018 as one of the worst years for independent media in Belarus.

The charges against the journalists were widely seen as being politically motivated. Many believed that if Zolotova were to be imprisoned, it would likely be a significant setback in the relationship between Belarus and the West.

Recall that the release of political prisoners in 2015 prompted the EU and US to lift sanctions. Besides, a 30-days visa-free regime was introduced and just recently Belarus announced its plans to lift a cap on the number of U.S. diplomats allowed to serve in the country.

In an interview to Foreign Policy Zolotova also noted that the attack on independent media undermine not only Minsk’s courtship of the West, but it leaves Belarus more susceptible to propaganda from Moscow.