Authorities on Wednesday arrested Deutsche Welle journalist Paulyuk Bykowski in the Belarusian capital, Minsk.
Belarusian authorities did not give any reason for the arrest.
“The investigating committee came to me,” Bykowski, who works for DW’s Russian service, wrote on his Facebook page on Wednesday morning.
His wife, Volha Bykovskaya, later confirmed to DW that a search team took away a computer, tablets, phones, pen drives, discs and bank cards from their apartment. “The search took about two hours,” she said.
DW lodged a protest with the Belarusian ambassador in Berlin and demanded his immediate release. It stressed that the rule of law must apply to accredited journalists.
Crackdown on journalists
The arrest follows detention of at least four journalists from two popular news sites on Tuesday. The journalists are accused of unlawfully accessing news from state news agency BeITA.
Bykowski has denied reading the agency’s reports in a long time.
His wife said she suspected the charges were a facade to crack down on independent journalists in Belarus.
Germany’s Foreign Ministry called on Minsk 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 spokesperson told DW.
OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Harlem Desir on Wednesday expressed serious concern over the detention of journalists in Belarus.
“The highly disproportionate measures taken by law enforcement against two independent news agencies raises serious concern about the respect for the independent media in Belarus,” Desir said in a statement.
Intimidation of the media
The ex-Soviet country, led by strongman President Alexander Lukashenko, has escalated its crackdown on journalists since major anti-government protests last year.
“These arrests are clearly an attempt to intimidate leading independent journalists,” Johann Bihr, the head of Reporters Without Border’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk, told DW.
“The action is clearly disproportionate to the charges.” Bihr said. “The arrests, the raids and the confiscation of computers and other devices suggest that the arrests are political.”
‘Chilling effect’ on journalists
More than 100 journalists were arrested in 2017, according to Reporters Without Borders. Most of them were journalists who were seen as close to the opposition.
“It’s worrying that now the government is cracking down on journalists from respectable, widely recognized outlets such as DW,” Bihr said. “These arrests will have a chilling effect on other critical journalists.”
Bihr also took a strong exception to the authorities seizing journalists’ computers and other devices.
“They compromise the confidentiality of journalistic sources,” he said. “I fear that information will be now intercepted and analyzed by police, which is a major violation of journalistic freedom.”