Belarus detains three independent journalists

The journalists were arrested as police searched two offices in the Belarussian capital Minsk

Belarusian authorities on Tuesday detained at least three journalists from two independent news websites over "unauthorised" access to services provided by the state news agency.

Tut.by editors Maria Zolotova and Anna Kaltygina were detained along with Tatiana Korovenkova, a BelaPAN journalist, the Belarusian Investigative Committee said.

All three are accused of "unauthorised access to computer information for reasons of personal gain," it said in a statement, indicating that a criminal case had been opened.

State news agency BelTA has accused them of failing to pay subscription fees.

If found guilty, they face up to two years in prison.

Tut.by said Ulyana Boboyed, who edits its society section, had also been detained and that several others had also been interrogated.

Officials said that between them, the two websites had made more than 15,000 "unauthorised connections" to BelTa without its "knowledge or consent"

"As a result of the committed crimes, BelTa suffered significant harm" and its "business reputation was harmed," the Investigative Committee said.

- 'Not a political issue' -

BelPAN's chief editor Irina Levshina told AFP her news site "does not have a BelTA subscription, but with the agency's agreement we used material from its website with hyperlinks."

"We are forced to take this information, as we work in unequal conditions. We do not have access to official information and to the press services of (our) country's leadership," Levshina said.

Belarusian foreign ministry spokesman Anatoly Glaz told Russian state media the arrests had "nothing to do with issues of press freedom" in Belarus and were not linked to "the political realm."

Speaking to Russia's RIA Novosti news agency, Glaz called the case "purely a legal issue" about "the banal misuse of access to paid information."

In a statement, the Council of Europe expressed "great concern" over the case and called for the journalists to be released.

In July, a Minsk court sentenced independent journalist Dzmitry Halko to four years in prison for allegedly assaulting a police officer.

Belarus is ranked 155th out of 180 in this year's Reporters Without Borders world press freedom index.

President Alexander Lukashenko has ruled the ex-Soviet country, which shares borders with three EU member states, with an iron fist since 1994.

The journalists were arrested as police searched two offices in the Belarussian capital Minsk