The Minsk City Court handed down its verdict in the tax evasion case against former employees of Tut by Media LLC. The company was previously the largest independent publisher in Belarus, a status it had held since 2000.
Five people were named in the suit. Two of them are in custody: editor-in-chief Maryna Zolotova and general director Ludmila Chekina. Three other defendants – economy and politics editor Olga Loika, correspondent Elena Tolkacheva, and legal advisor Ekaterina Tkachenko – were released from custody on personal guarantees. They were put on the wanted list after they failed to appear at the court hearing. Their case was separate.
Zolotova and Chekina’s case has been under consideration by the court since January 9. The court sentenced the defendants to 12 years in a general regime penal colony. They were found guilty of tax evasion, inciting hatred and calling for actions against the national security of Belarus.
The KGB included Zolotova and Chekina in the list of “persons involved in terrorist activities.” Belarusian human rights activists declared them political prisoners.
On the eve of the verdict, a film by propagandist Ksenia Lebedeva was broadcast on TV channel Belarus 1, which promised to provide details of the Tut.by case. However, the film contained no specific accusations, but the journalists were declared guilty of “devaluations in Belarus,” “in Ukrainian Euromaidan,” and even “in human outrage at the actions of the authorities in connection with the covid,” among other things.
The criminal case against the employees of Tut.by was opened in the spring of 2021. On May 18, 2021, Belarusian authorities blocked the site for allegedly containing “numerous facts of violations of the law on mass media, for posting prohibited information.” On the same day, authorities conducted searches in the Tut.by editorial office, its regional offices, and other affiliated companies.
The State Control Committee of Belarus accused Tut by Media LLC of receiving tax privileges to which it was not entitled. As a result, according to the prosecution, more than three million Belarusian rubles (about $1.2m) were unpaid to the budget of the republic from 2019 to 2021.
A total of 14 people were detained as part of the investigation. By the time the case was brought to court, the Prosecutor General’s Office of Belarus said that nine defendants had already pleaded guilty, repaid the damage, and filed motions for exemption from criminal liability.
In December 2020, the Minsk court deprived Tut.by of its media status. The lawsuit filed by the Ministry of Information of Belarus claimed that the site had disseminated “inaccurate information” about the 2020 presidential election, the results of which caused mass protests in the country.
At the time Tut.by was blocked, it was one of the most visited websites in the country; as of April 2021, the portal reached 63% of the Belarusian Internet audience. After the crackdown on the publication, former members of the Tut.by team, who left the country, launched a the site Zerkalo.io. In 2022, Belarusian authorities declared Tut by Media Ltd. “an extremist organization.” Zerkalo.io website was also declared “extremist” and blocked in Belarus.