In February 2019, the American Bar Association (ABA) Center for Human Rights monitored criminal proceedings against Marina Zolotova as part of the Clooney Foundation for Justice’s TrialWatch initiative. Ms. Zolotova is the editor-in-chief of Tut.By, the largest independent online news portal in Belarus, a country dominated by state and state-affiliated media. She was convicted after two weeks of trial. Several elements of Ms. Zolotova’s prosecution raise concerns that the case was politically motivated.
In August 2018, Ms. Zolotova and at least 17 other journalists were arrested and detained on suspicion of sharing passwords to paywalled content from BeLTA, a state-run news agency: BeLTA imposed paywalls on its website articles for five to ten minutes, after which it granted public access. While charges against all other journalists were dropped and replaced with administrative fines, the authorities pushed forward with the prosecution of Ms. Zolotova. Ms. Zolotova was tried for “inaction of an official” - analogous to criminal negligence - on the theory that she knew about but did not stop the password sharing. BeLTA served as a criminal complainant in the case.
From the outset, the proceedings contained various indicia of improper motive, including - inter alia - the fact that BelTA had never before pursued criminal penalties for password sharing, a not uncommon practice amongst the Belarusian media; that BelTA had taken few precautions to protect against password sharing; the pressure and intimidation exerted by investigators so as to build the case against Ms. Zolotova; the abandonment of charges against all but Ms. Zolotova; and the state’s extensive investment in the prosecution of a relatively minor offense. Concerns over political motivations were heightened by the concurrence of Ms. Zolotova’s prosecution and a widespread crackdown on independent media in Belarus.
With respect to the courtroom, the proceedings were largely fair, excepting the prosecution’s use of unreliable pretrial statements and the fact that the court has yet to publish its judgment. Without a published judgment, it is difficult to determine whether the court’s decision to convict Ms. Zolotova was adequately reasoned. Under international standards, judgments must be made public in order to promote the open and transparent administration of justice.
Although it is encouraging that Ms. Zolotova’s punishment was limited to a fine and not imprisonment, the fact of the prosecution and conviction is troubling. Arrests, detention, legal fees, fines, and the prospect of incarceration all serve to deter free speech. Credible reports indicate that state harassment of journalists in Belarus is only escalating. As Belarus approaches the flashpoint of the 2020 presidential election, it must ensure respect for independent media and allow outlets such as Tut.By to operate without restraint.