Marina Zolotova, editor-in-chief of Belarus news portal tut.by, risked up to five years in prison after being accused of negligence for failing to control the work of her subordinates (Sergei GAPON)

Minsk (AFP) – The editor of a Belarusian independent news website avoided jail on Monday but was fined by a court in Minsk in a case denounced by rights activists as censorship.

Marina Zolotova, editor-in-chief of Tut.by, was fined 7,650 Belarusian rubles ($3,400) for “unauthorised” access to services provided by the state news agency BelTA.

She was detained in August last year with several other journalists. BelTA accused them of failing to pay subscription fees.

Zolotova faced up to five years in prison after being accused of negligence for failing to control her subordinates as they logged in to access BelTA’s wire.

“I was pleased that the sentence turned out to be softer than what the prosecutor had asked,” a smiling Zolotova said in court.

She thanked colleagues for their support in the case before hugging her crying mother.

Zolotova implied the accusations made against her were a pretext for authorities to put pressure on her popular publication.

“This case is much deeper and more serious than the case of unauthorised access,” she said after the ruling.

“The essence of it is to deal with Tut.by and independent media, to show who is in charge.”

The charges were brought against Zolotova despite the fact that BelTA makes its stories freely accessible soon after subscribers see them.

Johann Bihr, who heads Reporters without Borders’ Eastern Europe and Central Asia office, condemned what he called “the latest act of intimidation against the last independent media outlets in Belarus” and warned of an “escalating crackdown.”

Zolotova said she had not yet decided whether to appeal the ruling.

Tut.by is the biggest independent news site in Belarus.

In July last year, a Minsk court jailed independent journalist Dzmitry Halko for four years for allegedly assaulting a police officer.

Ex-Soviet nation Belarus, ranked 155th out of 180 in Reporters Without Borders’ world press freedom index, has been ruled by President Alexander Lukashenko since 1994.

In 2016, the European Union lifted most of the sanctions it had imposed in recent years against Lukashenko and other Belarusians, to encourage progress on human rights.

But Belarusian authorities have ramped up efforts to control the media since major anti-government demonstrations in 2017, with independent journalists and civil society activists facing pressure and harassment.

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