Marina Zolotova, the editor-in-chief of tut.by, was detained in August along with nearly 20 other journalists / © AFP
The editor of the biggest independent Belarus news site went on trial on Tuesday in a case condemned by rights groups as part of a crackdown on the media under President Alexander Lukashenko.
Marina Zolotova, the editor-in-chief of tut.by, was initially detained in August along with nearly 20 other journalists over alleged "unauthorised access" to information from a state news agency.
They were all released after being ordered to pay fines and damages to state-run BelTA news service.
But Zolotova was subsequently charged with "official inaction," or negligence, for failure to control her subordinates when they accessed BelTA by using account passwords for the agency.
If convicted, she faces up to five years in jail and a possible ban from holding managerial positions.
She is also subject to a travel ban.
A smiling Zolotova appeared in a Minsk court to applause from dozens of supporters on the first day of her trial. Several Western diplomats attended the hearing.
Zolotova said her lawyers would try to have the case thrown out.
"But I don't know whether we'll succeed," she told reporters in court.
Zolotova also said the case was designed to specifically target her outlet.
"We have more than a million views a day, while the BelTA news agency and other state outlets have significantly less," she told the website of the Belarusian Association of Journalists before the hearing.
"This is an attempt to weaken the competition, if not to close it."
The charges were brought against Zolotova despite the fact that BelTA makes its stories freely accessible soon after subscribers see them.
Tut.by said it was the first time in the history of modern Belarus that the chief editor of a media outlet was put on trial for her "professional work".
Ex-Soviet Belarus, ruled by authoritarian leader Lukashenko since 1994, was ranked 155th out of 180 in last year's Reporters Without Borders world press freedom index.
Boris Goretsky, spokesman for the Belarusian Association of Journalists, said his group was watching the case.
"It is truly amazing that in 21st-century Belarus the chief editor of an online media outlet is being tried for using passwords she did not use," he said.
- 'Act of intimidation' -
Alexei Kazlyuk, a lawyer with the Human Constanta rights group, said the case had so many irregularities "it was strange it made it to trial".
"The more we learn, the more we see the political overtones of the case," he said.
Ex-Soviet Belarus, ruled by authoritarian leader Lukashenko since 1994, was ranked 155th out of 180 in last year's Reporters Without Borders world press freedom index / © POOL/AFP
Kazlyuk said that virtually anyone had access to passwords and accounts at BelTA.
"It turned out that apart from employees and their clients, other people used the accounts, too," he said.
The Council of Europe and Reporters Without Borders expressed concern at the time of the journalists' detentions in August.
Paulyuk Bykowski, a Belarusian journalist who works for Deutsche Welle, Germany's public international broadcaster, was held for two days and his home raided during the crackdown.
Human Rights Watch has called the authorities' response "disproportionate".
In 2016, the European Union lifted most of the sanctions it had imposed in recent years against Lukashenko and other Belarusians, in a move to encourage progress on human rights.
But the Belarusian authorities have ramped up efforts to control media since major anti-government demonstrations in 2017, with independent journalists and civil society activists facing pressure and harassment.
Johann Bihr, who heads Reporters without Borders' Eastern Europe and Central Asia office, said the group regretted that the EU had lifted sanctions against Lukashenko's regime.
"It is difficult to see this trial as anything but an act of intimidation against the last independent media in Belarus," Bihr said.