Last week, in the midst of blaring air-raid sirens in Tel Aviv, Jenny Cherniavskaia, a 33-year-old resident of the city, grappled with the biggest crisis of her life, which was taking place thousands of kilometers from Israel.
TUT.by, the biggest news site in Belarus – and established by Cherniavskaia’s father, whose death last year from an illness resulted in the transfer of most of the company’s shares to her – was raided and shut down, with a great share of its staff arrested. Her mother, Yulia Chernyavskaya, vanished after being arrested in Minsk, felt unwell and was rushed to the hospital under guard, and was then “disappeared” again. Only two days later did Jenny find out that her mother was in the hands of Belarus' Department for financial investigations. She ended up under house arrest.
TUT.by was set up by Cherniavskaia’s father Yuri Zisser, a Jewish-Belarus businessman, in the early years of this millennium. The company was founded as a consumerism-related and email hosting site that would provide ongoing news feed, something akin to a local Yahoo. But over time, the news division became the backbone of the portal, Cherniavskaia tells Haaretz in a Zoom conversation.
“The more official media outlets in Belarus broadcast news about collective farms, the wheat harvest and milk production,” says Cherniavskaia, citing the sort of subjects favored by Russia’s media, “the more of a need there was for objective information. The pressure on TUT.by [to report objectively] mounted and it increasingly took on the style of an independent media outlet.” People in Belarus,” she adds, “start their morning with TUT.by, continuing to get updates two or three times throughout the day.”
Data relating to the media company confirms what she says. According to Similarweb, an online analysis website, TUT.by was the leading news website in Belarus last April, and the fifth most popular website overall. According to the Alexa ranking site, it was the fourth most popular website in the country, after Google, YouTube and Vkontakte, the Russian equivalent of Facebook.
All this was true until last week on Tuesday, when policemen raided the offices of TUT.by in Minsk and in other cities, blocking its bank accounts and arresting 14 journalists, including editor-in-chief Marina Zolotova. As she was being dragged from her home to a police vehicle, Zoltova was heard shouting that she was probably suspected of failing to pay taxes, along with other senior employees at the website. Later, the KGB confirmed that these were indeed the suspicions regarding the staff.
For his part, Kirill Voloshin, a cofounder of TUT.by who lives outside Belarus, told Haaretz in a phone conversation that such suspicions against Zolotova are absurd, since she never dealt with financial matters.
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Cherniavskaia: “We always wondered what pretext they would use once they decided to harass us. TUT.by has been paying taxes since it was established. We hire external accountants and make sure all the paperwork is in order, down to the last freelancer invoice. Legal experts go over every story that might contain inaccuracies. But here, they’ve latched on to tax payments.”
The coup de grace delivered by the regime of President Alexander Lukashenko was blocking the TUT.by portal and those of its affiliates, which deal with issues like consumerism, lifestyle and parenting.
“They simply took down the servers,” says Voloshin, adding that the law in Belarus mandates that a website’s servers must be located within the country, which makes them dependent on the government. Despite that, the website’s journalists who were not arrested or who have been released in the meantime continue to report, using alternative platforms such as Telegram, Instagram, TikTok and others. News is posted for now on a temporary site, but Voloshin says he hopes that soon, the staff will be able to create a mirror website that will at least be accessible in other countries.
The Lukashenko regime has taken other steps to thwart the work of local media outlets. Ahead of the national election in August 2020, and thereafter, a number of sites were shut down, including Facebook, YouTube, Telegram and various social media, as well as TUT.by and other news outlets. Currently, 50 such sites are blocked in Belarus, said Boris Gorsky, a representative of the Belarus Association of Journalists, at a press conference held on Zoom. However, the closures so far have been localized, and Belarusian users quickly adapted VPN software – virtual private networks that allow one to hook up ostensibly from another country – as well as resorting to other measures that bypass the blockages. After the suppression of a big wave of demonstrations against the Lukashenko government about six months ago, dozens of Telegram channels, including NEXTA and others that spearheaded the protests, were declared to be extremist, with anyone using these being subject to a fine. But now, the regime has decided to crack down and not leave any options for getting around the closure of portals, and decided to virtually expunge TUT.by by shutting down its servers.
Aerial media terror
The Lukashenko government, not renowned for its sensitivity on previous occasions involving the media, has now taken off its gloves. A few days after TUT.by was shuttered, the authorities carried out an act of what could be called aerial terror, with the purpose of laying their hands on a prominent opponent of the regime. This past Sunday, a Ryanair passenger plane on its way from Athens to Vilnius was forced to land in Minsk on the pretext that there was an explosive device on board. The plane turned back when it was already close to the border between Belarus and Lithuania, and landed in Minsk, where journalist Roman Protasevich, a co-founder and former editor-in-chief of the NEXTA Telegram channel, was taken off the plane and arrested. According to reports, his female companion was also arrested. A few Russian citizens also deplaned there. Only after many hours at the Minsk airport was the plane allowed to continue its journey.
On Monday, in yet another example of muscle-flexing, Lukashenko signed a bill that further restricts the freedom of speech and the freedom of assembly in his country: From now on all citizens (not only journalists) are not allowed to cover “unsanctioned demonstrations” (in essence, any protests) or to live-stream them.
The NEXTA channel was perhaps the most important voice of protest against Lukashenko following last year’s election. In addition to publishing video clips, photos from the field and news items, NEXTA advertised calls to participate in demonstrations while helping to coordinate some of them. Its editors, working out of Warsaw, were declared terrorists by Belarus authorities.
Protasevich has been charged with serious offenses: organizing mass disruptions of public order and “incitement to social animosity” against government representatives. The penalty for either of those charges can be as much as 12 to 15 years in prison. If a direct charge of terror is added, Protasevich may be looking at a death penalty.
According to a Telegram channel associated with the regime, the order to turn the plane around and bring it to Minsk was given by Lukashenko personally, “in order to protect Europe.” Ryanair maintained its silence for hours while its plane was in Minsk. After it landed in Vilnius, the airline released a laconic statement saying that Belarusian authorities had told the pilots there was a security risk on board, instructing them to land in Minsk. However, the company’s CEO, Michael O’Leary, has since called the affair “a state-sponsored hijacking.” He also suggested that the other passengers who deplaned in Minsk and did not continue to Vilnius were KGB agents.
The closure of TUT.by sets a new record in the persecution of journalists in Belarus, but the background for this attack was prepared last year. According to the Belarus Association of Journalists, hundreds of reporters were arrested while they were covering demonstrations against the falsification of last August’s election results. Usually they were released within a few hours, or up to 24 hours later. Some were beaten or injured by rubber bullets.
With ironic timing, the day after TUT.by was shut down last week, Katerina Borisevich, one of its journalists, was released from a penal colony in which she had served a six-month sentence for a story she wrote. Borisevich had revealed that a young man who died from a beating by masked men acting on behalf of the government, had not been drunk, as was claimed; she was convicted of divulging medical information without permission. In addition, two female journalists from the independent TV channel Belsat were sentenced in February to two years in prison for “organizing a protest,” after broadcasting live from a demonstration.
Last year, the regime began to crack down seriously on local media. In September, Lukashenko said in a speech before government prosecutors that “sometimes, it is not the time for laws” – a statement that has since morphed into a meme. But the pressure on media outlets in general and on TUT.by in particular began beforehand and never ceased, says Jenny Cherniavskaia.
“They would summon my father all the time to meetings with various officials, his phones were tapped, and three years ago there was an initial attempt to harass us, when our editor-in-chief was arrested, along with some other employees,” she explains.
“Journalists from other media outlets were also arrested at the time, all of them charged with illegally accessing the content of BelTA, the country’s official news agency. This ended with a fine imposed on [editor] Zolotova. But Belarus didn’t yet have the meat grinder such as that existing today, and the government became more cautious, since it knew that if TUT.by was shut down, people would take to the streets.
“We were constantly getting information from well-wishers who were close to the innermost circle, to the effect that soon they [the regime] would start crushing us, saying, ‘You have to stop writing such provocative news.’ Or ‘please take down such and such a story about such and such an official.’”
And how did you respond? Were there cases where you reached some understandings?
Cherniavskaia: “No. We always explain that if we were to take some item down, readers will notice. And if they see that, it will be bad for us and for the people mentioned in the item. People aren’t stupid, they’ll notice that some important item has disappeared. That’s why it would be pointless. My father and the editorial board always tried to explain that the information should be copious and diverse, and that they [the authorities] were shooting themselves in the foot by blocking some of the news.”
In neighboring Russia – a country whose leaders serve as an inspiration for Lukashenko and perhaps even learn a thing or two from him – the last few months have also seen records broken regarding suppression of free speech. Since the Putin regime already controls offline media such as newspapers and TV stations, it is now targeting the few remaining independent online outlets. Many journalists in Russia are being detained and questioned on a regular basis. In mid-April, three staffers on the student paper DOXA were arrested and later placed under house arrest for two months. Like their Belarus colleagues, they too were charged with “incitement to protest” following a video clip they posted, in which they explained to students what their rights were.
Another weapon at Moscow’s disposal is to declare media outlets foreign agents. The law, which was expanded late last year, allows for such an indictment, which can also be levelled at independent journalists as well, if they have accepted a one-time or minimal payment from abroad, even as a private donation.
Late last month, the law was applied to the Medusa website, one of the most important Russian-language liberal news outlets, based in Riga, the capital of Latvia. It was only a matter of time, but then President Vladimir Putin signed off on an amended law that would force Medusa to attach to every item on its website, or any of its social media posts, a lengthy disclaimer that informs users that they are reading an item disseminated by a foreign agent. This in fact put paid to any advertising on the site, forcing it to embark on a massive crowdfunding campaign. Moreover, as explained recently in interviews by the website’s publisher, Galina Timchenko, the new situation has lost correspondents many of their sources. No official figure will take the risk of leaking information to an outlet that has been deemed a foreign agent.
Jewish culture activist
Back to Jenny Cherniavskaia. Why is the heiress of a Belarusian communications empire persecuted by the regime living in Israel? She says that Judaism always occupied a central place in her family’s life. She attended a Jewish school and was active in summer camps organized by the Jewish Agency for Jewish youths and decided to immigrate to Israel in 2015.
“All my friends and classmates were in Israel, but none of them was doing interesting work. They had cleaning jobs or worked as salespeople, living ordinary lives of immigrants. I had an interesting job – I worked for one of the larger companies in Belarus (in various managerial and organizational capacities in different projects run by TUT.by). But then I got tired of this, partly on the backdrop of the latest cyclical economic crisis to hit Belarus. I realized that I was ineffective in my work and I wanted to change something. I completed an MBA at the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya, after which I met my future husband, and I realized that it was better for me here than it was there.”
Cherniavskaia adds that over the years she tried to convince her parents to immigrate to Israel too, but they refused, even after her father got cancer: “We argued on a weekly basis. ‘Belarus is our place,’ they’d say. My father did a lot for Jewish culture in Belarus, he organized the first Klezmer festival in the country, but he never intended to become an Israeli. I tried to convince them to get an Israeli passport so they would have a place of refuge, but they said it would be unfair to the State of Israel. I think that’s idiotic.”
She has some harsh words for Israel’s silence over human rights violations in Belarus during the last year, in general, and over the government’s ongoing persecution of TUT.by journalists in particular. Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, seen by the opposition in Belarus as the country’s elected and legitimate president, protested against the website’s shutdown last week, after which several countries, including Britain and Norway, spoke out about it.
“I know we have other problems here [in Israel] now,” says Cherniavskaia, “but I’d like to know what words would finally trigger Israel into taking a position on this matter. When events began there last August, we demonstrated every week outside the Belarus Embassy in Tel Aviv, but Israel never took a stand. A few Russian-speaking politicians tried to exploit this situation and came a few times to express their support [for the protesters], but Israel as a state has been revoltingly silent during this whole period – I’m don’t hesitate to use this term. We turned to Israel’s Foreign Ministry, the Knesset and the prime minister, but Israel’s ambassador was one of the only ones who presented his credentials to Lukashenko, thereby recognizing his legitimacy. I don’t know what to say any more in order to draw attention to this issue.”
Israel’s ambassador to Belarus, Alex Goldman-Shaiman, and the Foreign Ministry’s spokesman both refused to respond to questions by Haaretz on the subject of rights violations in Belarus and on the closure of TUT.by, specifically. The ministry did want to note, with respect to Goldman-Shaiman’s presentation of credentials in Belarus, that “Israel’s policy takes into account the need to maintain open diplomatic channels regarding the unique interests of Israel, chiefly the situation of the Jewish community in that country.”