MINSK (Reuters) – Two more journalists were detained in Belarus on Wednesday on suspicion of hacking the computer systems of state-run news agency BelTA, authorities said, including one who was working for German broadcaster Deutsche Welle.
Investigators identified the men as Paulyuk Bykowski, who Deutsche Welle said was its longtime correspondent in the country, and Alexei Zhukov, who works for a local news site, and said they had been detained as part of a criminal investigation.
Several other journalists were detained on Tuesday in connection with the same case. Local rights groups said then that the arrests were part of a government drive to muzzle independent media.
Deutsche Welle confirmed that Bykowski, who is a Belarussian citizen, was arrested on Wednesday, after a two-hour search of his home.
The broadcaster said it had lodged a protest with Belarus’s ambassador in Berlin about Bykowski’s arrest, and was demanding his immediate release.
Bykowski’s wife Volha Bykowskaja said authorities carried out a two-hour search of the home and seized computers, tablets, phones, USB sticks and bank cards. She said his detention was “absurd”.
Bykowski had appeared on a radio programme on Tuesday to discuss searches of the newsrooms of privately-owned Tut.by, Belarus’s biggest online news portal, with 800,000 daily unique users, and independent news agency BelaPAN.
Germany’s foreign ministry noted the arrests and newsroom searches carried out on Tuesday, and said on Wednesday it had urged the Minsk government to respect press freedom and refrain from disproportionate actions against journalists.
“The German government advocates for protection of the basic principles of freedom of the media and opinion,” a ministry spokesman said in a statement.
President Alexander Lukashenko has run Belarus along Soviet-style command lines since 1994. He has heeded some calls from the West to show more leniency towards political opposition, but opponents say their freedom to operate remains severely limited.
(Reporting by Andrei Makhovsky in Minsk and Andrea Shalal in Berlin; Writing by Maria Kiselyova; Editing by Catherine Evans)