Witnesses Claim Pressure And Intimidation. TUT.BY vs BelTA Trial Goes On

The trial of Marina Zolotova, the editor-in-chief of TUT.BY, charged for professional activity continues in Minsk. She does not admit her guilt.

On the third and fourth days, the court called out employees of TUT.BY as witnesses.

Marina Zolotova arrived in court on the first day of trial

The so-called BelTA case is the loudest ongoing media case in Belarus. Zolotova and a dozen other journalists of several independent media were detained in August over alleged “unauthorized access” to information from a state news agency BelTA. Journalists were later released and ordered to pay fines and damages. Marina Zolotova remains the only defendant. She is changed for professional malfeasance that could bring her a five-year prison sentence if convicted.

On Friday 15 February the court is hearing to the testimony of the editors of TUT.BY.

Anna Rudenko and Galina Ulasik both admit having used other people’s password to BelTA’s feed but add that Marina Zolotova neither was aware of that fact nor even told them to do so.

Anna Rudenko says that in the six and a half years of work for TUT.BY Marina Zolotova never gave her direct instructions to do something or not.

Work processes in the newsroom are based on trust and professionalism she adds answering the question from the lawyer of the victim party about how TUT.BY managers to retain high ratings without strict instructions for journalists.

Prosecutor Julia Kharcheikina

Editor Galina Ulasik tells the court she hadn’t discussed a paid subscription to BelTA with Marina Zolotova.  Why did she access the paid feed of the agency? Galina Ulasik says the paid version has a better interface, structured updates, and no trash news items that are present in the free feed.

I was detained on 7 August, and they told me I was a witness. I was told to go the Investigation Committee, answer questions and they would let me go.

During the interrogation, I was told that I have to say that it was my management who made me use BelTA’s subscription. I refused to, and from a witness, I became a suspect. They set me free on 9 August.

The third day of trial on 14 February began with the questioning of TUT.BY Director General Lyudmila Chekina. She answered questions about the structure and work processes in the newsroom.

Lyudmila Chekina confirmed that TUT.BY did not have a paid subscription to BelTA.

I leaned it only on the evening of 7 August (the day of the searches of the media offices and detentions of journalists and editors – note TUT.BY); at first, I couldn’t even understand what kind of unauthorized access they were talking about. I know that in two years only two materials from BelTA’s feed were published on TUT.BY earlier than on the free feed of BelTA.

We were surprised to learn how many journalists were breaking the rule (accessing the paid feed of BelTA using old passwords – note BelarusFeed).

Lyudmila Chekina voiced the position of the company – employees are guilty, but, in her opinion, they had committed civil, not criminal offenses.

We paid the damage although we do not agree with its amount.

TUT.BY Director General paid attention to the fact that the reasons for Zolotova’s phone being tapped were unclear. She spoke, in particular, about the recording of a March talk between TUT.BY’s chief editor and her colleague (it was published by state-owned media in August).

The appeal from the newspaper Respublika (about problems with access to BelTA – note TUT.BY) was filed a month later, in April 2018. It is unclear why Marina Zolotova’s phone was tapped (in March – note BelarusFeed).

After the start of the case, TUT.BY reduced the number of news from BelTA’s free feed, and did not buy a subscription to the agency’s paid feed.

The court proceeded with the interrogation of the chief editor of Realt.by Vladislav Kuletsky.

Kuletsky worked for TUT.BY in 2015–2016 (the trial focuses on the events on 2017-2018 when the journalist wasn’t TUT.BY’s employee – note BelarusFeed) and later for the newspaper Respublika.

Vladislav Kuletsky became the second witness in the case who publicly spoke about pressure from the investigation.

Part of my testimony was imposed. I asked the investigators to remove part of the testimony, something was removed, and something was left. Some of my testimony was actually written by the investigator.

Another editor of TUT.BY Uliana Boboed claimed she used to access BelTA’s paid feed using the password from the previous job at the Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper.

There were no legal grounds for her to assume the password couldn’t be used after she changed her workplace.

Working on TUT.BY I used the old password out of habit, I didn’t inform anyone. Marina Zolotova did not have the opportunity to track what I was reading.

Every article of BelTA that I have read eventually cost me 451 rubles, or over $200 (Uliana Boboed paid BelTA 8580 Belarusian rubles in damage. The criminal case against her was terminated – note BelarusFeed).

The witness told the court that during the first interrogation she had an impression that the case was a political one. She said the was shouted at by the head of the investigation group, pressured the right of  refusal to testify wasn’t clarified to her and her lawyer wasn’t allowed into the Investigation Committe.

Why is it important?

Last August, at least 15 journalists from independent news outlets were arrested and detained,  their homes were searched. The detainees were accused of illegally accessing the paid subscriber section of the state-owned BelTA news wire.

Police also searched the offices of TUT.BYBelaPAN and other media outlets, seized computers and documents.

International organizations, human rights activists, local authorities and foreign media expressed their concern and condemned journalists detentions. The Europen Union (EU) called on Minsk to free journalists, stressing that such actions are in contradiction with Belarus’ international commitments.

The American, British, Swedish and Lithuanian diplomats visited TUT.BY to talk to its founder Yury Zisser, and express their support.

The prosecution against journalists was subsequently stopped ‘in view of the non-existence of a crime’. The charges were replaced with administrative liability. In addition to fines, journalists paid damages (from 3,000 to 17,000 BYN).  

As of now, the only remaining defendant in the case is the editor-in-chief of TUT.BY Marina Zolotova. She now stands charged with ‘inaction of an official,’ which is comparable to criminal negligence.

Source: TUT.BY