Originally published in Columbia Journalism Review (January/February 2012)
Last summer I traveled to Belarus on assignment for The Virginia Quarterly Review. It was the most bizarre reporting trip I had ever made. Following a series of misadventures, during which my passport mysteriously went missing, I was apprehended by operatives from the KGB—as the security services are still called in that part of the world—and after a grueling interrogation, locked up in solitary confinement. Publicly, the reason behind my detention was simple enough: verification of identity. That could have happened in the United States, or about anywhere else. During a routine immigration check, a tourist fails to provide a valid document and is detained until replacements are issued. On the record, I was just unlucky. On the record, the Republic of Belarus is a democratic state in Eastern Europe, where people are arrested only on strictly legal grounds.
Scratch the surface, though, and the ground gets muddy. I was not really a tourist—I was a Bulgarian-born journalist, writing for US media, who entered the country on a tourist visa. To be considered a journalist in Belarus, one has to receive special accreditation from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs—a process I had forgone, having heard of numerous colleagues who had recently been denied entry. Hoping to avoid confrontation with Belarusian authorities and work under their radar, I had also chosen a topic that to me seemed safe enough: tractors. Minsk Tractor Works, as the country’s biggest manufacturer is called, employs 30,000 people and holds 10 percent of the global wheeled-tractor market. Tractors are the Belarusian version of Cuban cigars or Saudi Arabian oil. My plan—slightly ludicrous in retrospect—was to write a feature about the current state of Belarus, not by confronting politics directly, but by looking at the machine industry and its workers. After all, the best stories are always written from the bottom up. The problem was that everything is politics in Belarus, tractors included. When the KGB interrogated me, they didn’t seem concerned about my missing passport. But they had many questions about my work as a reporter, which they were obviously aware of. What was I doing in Belarus? Why was I writing about heavy industry? Why didn’t I have state-sanctioned accreditation? What was my political stance? Why was I working for western media?
Five days later, I was released from my jail cell and taken to the airport in an unmarked van. For my transgressions, the verdict was deportation with a three-year ban on returning “in the interest of public order.” I had never considered myself a threat to anything, least of all public order, but they had different ideas. In the authorities’ eyes, every journalist working independently, beyond the gaze of the state, was already suspicious and quite possibly part of a conspiracy to bring down the government.
In truth, the KGB did me a favor. I had chosen to enter as a tourist to get a more unobstructed view of Belarus, and they inadvertently provided it. There is no better way to get acquainted with the horizon of a police state than from the inside of a jail cell. I wasn’t a criminal or a dissident or any kind of hero—I was just one of the scores of journalists, domestic and foreign, who have been detained on perfectly legal charges by the regime of Alexander Lukashenko. The law, after all, is for everyone—it’s just that in Belarus journalists happen to misbehave more often.
The difficulty of talking about censorship and freedom of the press in Belarus is precisely this: Formally, the press is free, and there is no censorship in the traditional sense of the word. There’s no secret army of scissored clerks poring over unpublished articles. The country’s constitution guarantees freedom of thought, belief, and expression, while a law on mass media calls for equality, diversity of views, and respect for human rights. All the right buzzwords are there. According to official statistics, there are 674 newspapers and 665 magazines, two-thirds of them private. There are 163 radio stations and 78 TV stations; more than a hundred international channels are available. This is neither China nor Iran. By all counts, Belarus must be a media paradise.
Except that it is the most repressive regime on the continent, and one that many have dubbed “Europe’s last dictatorship.” Reporters without Borders currently ranks Belarus 168 out of 179 countries; Freedom House gives the country a score of 93 on a scale from 10 (most free) to 99 (least free).
There are reasons for that. In December 2010, President Alexander Lukashenko won a fourth consecutive term—he had earlier changed the constitution to eliminate term limits—with a staggering 80 percent of the vote. When tens of thousands of people gathered in the streets and squares of Minsk to protest what they saw as a rigged election, they were brutally dispersed by Lukashenko’s security forces. More than 600 people were arrested, including seven of the presidential candidates and about 25 journalists. Most of the detained were sentenced to a couple of days in jail, but major political figures and notable journalists did not fare so well.
Right after the elections, Natalya Radina, editor of the radical opposition news site, Charter 97, was writing about the protests when officers broke through her office door. She spent a month and a half at the KGB’s main prison, sleeping in a cold, bedless cell, tortured psychologically, and interrogated at night. She was indicted for organizing a mass disorder, which carries a sentence of up to 15 years, but under international pressure was released, sent to her hometown, and banned from returning to Minsk or leaving the country. She had to check in daily with the police and was often called to report in at the regional KGB headquarters. She continued to edit the site, but felt in constant danger of being rearrested, or worse: Charter 97’s founder, Oleg Bebenin, had been found hanged under mysterious circumstances just a few months earlier.
“I needed to run away because they wouldn’t let me work normally,” Radina said. After escaping Belarus and hiding for four months in Moscow, she was granted asylum in Lithuania, where she edits Charter 97 with a few colleagues who have joined her in exile. The main charges against her have been dropped, but she feels she can’t return: “Today in Belarus it’s impossible to identify yourself as a journalist from Charter 97; that means you are a direct candidate for prison. You don’t need the Chinese model to have censorship over the press—it’s enough for them to arrest you and beat you up.”
Radina’s case is hardly unique. Two political activists who are members of the Belarusian Association of Journalists, Dmitry Bondarenko and Pavel Severinets, are still serving sentences for participating in the election protests. And the murder of reporters, like that of investigative journalist Veronika Cherkasova in 2004, is not unknown.
Charter 97 draws about a million unique visitors every month, making it the most popular opposition outlet among Belarus’s 9.5 million citizens. As a result, it has warranted special attention from the security services.
Still, the regime rarely persecutes the free press with such dogged severity. Smaller independent media are typically left to their own devices, even if they are never completely free of harassment. The strategy of the Belarusian government has been to avoid censorship of the totalitarian type. Lukashenko often boasts to foreign audiences that Belarus has freedom of expression. Instead, the government imposes so many arcane rules and regulations on independent publications that they are effectively impotent.
The newspaper Novy Chas (New Time) is a case in point. A liberal weekly, it prides itself on its autonomy, regularly publishing articles critical of the regime. “On the pages of Novy Chas every topic is treated fairly, following democratic principles,” said editor in chief Aliaksei Karol, a respected historian and political scientist whose engagement with civil rights goes back to Soviet times. “We practice quality journalism. In our newspaper we don’t like self-censorship; we write directly, the way we see things.” The only thing they try to avoid, he told me, is publishing cartoons or collages of “a certain figure.” In Belarus it is illegal to defame the president, and Karol’s previous newspaper project, Zgoda (Accord), was closed in 2006 after publishing a political cartoon.
The relative freedom of Novy Chas comes at a price. The paper is banned from nationwide distribution through Belposhta and Belsoyuzpechat, the state monopolies that handle all subscriptions and newsstand sales. Direct sales from its Minsk newsroom and a volunteer-run distribution network support a weekly print run of only 7,000—a minuscule number compared to the 500,000 daily copies of the main government-sponsored paper, Belarus Segodnya (Belarus Today), which every state company and department is required to subscribe to. To keep printing, Novy Chas relies heavily on sales, personal donations, and scant advertising, none of which is helped by its hobbled circulation.
Although there is no written rule, state companies are discouraged from advertising in the independent press, further tightening the economic noose. Publications like Novy Chasare also excluded from state subsidies (about 54 million euros last year alone) that support outlets willing to run government propaganda—mostly television, but print as well. While in theory anyone may publish anything, not everyone enjoys equal access to newsprint. According to the Belarusian Association of Journalists, publications on the wrong side of the political divide can expect to pay a nearly 80 percent premium on paper and printing costs. “At this point, independent political newspapers in Belarus can’t exist as commercial projects,” said Karol.
Another tool the government uses to gag and intimidate its detractors is Article 51 of the media code, which allows the closure of any outlet that receives more than two warnings in one year from the Ministry of Information. The warnings can be issued randomly and capriciously for petty infractions such as getting a date or a name wrong. The venerable independent weekly Nasha Niva (Our Field) was recently slated to close after receiving warnings for summarizing a documentary critical of Lukashenko, and for publishing an op-ed suggesting security services might have been involved in a deadly April 2011 bomb attack on the Minsk subway. “The warnings, in my opinion, were just formal quibbles, politically motivated,” said Andrej Skurko, the paper’s editor in chief. “Independent media have to weigh every word and verify every fact so as not to be punished by a warning, a fine, a criminal case, or closure for some minor technical infraction.”
The charges against Nasha Niva and another major independent paper, the dailyNarodnaya Volya (People’s Will), were finally dropped last July after significant pressure from Belarusian and international civil-rights organizations. The radio station Avtoradiowas not as lucky. It was closed in January 2011 for airing a speech by Lukashenko’s main rival, Andrej Sannikov, in which he said that the fate of the country would be decided not in the kitchen, but in the city squares.
It could be that newspapers like Nasha Niva and Narodnaya Volya rankled because they are actually sold and distributed by the state networks—an exception made by Lukashenko in 2008 to mollify western critics. Though their readership is still fairly insignificant (7,500 for Nasha Niva and 50,000 for Narodnaya Volya) compared to the massive clout of government media (state-controlled newspapers make up more than 80 percent of total circulation), they nevertheless have a significant following among free-thinking Belarusians. And for the authorities, tolerance ends where popularity begins.
Yet the old repressive tricks have proved pathetic in the Internet era. In a sense, Lukashenko has already lost, if not the political race, the race with time. “I can poke at an iPad with my fingers,” he told journalists last October, “but this is not the president’s job. The president should be conservative.” Without even realizing it, Lukashenko has ensured his own obsolescence.
Belarus is, in spite of everything, a modern and highly industrialized nation bordering the European Union. Though US and EU visas can be hard to get, many Belarusians, especially the more affluent residents of Minsk, regularly travel abroad and follow cultural and technological trends. Belarusian companies—including the tractor factories—trade in the West, and the beleaguered government relies on the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank to stay afloat.
Lukashenko may be a dictator, but he has been forced to cultivate the image of a democrat. He knows that to impose strict online censorship of the Chinese kind would galvanize his opposition and could jeopardize economic assistance—and by extension his political power.
This is perhaps the most striking paradox about Belarus. The country exists in parallel universes: one of old Soviet apparatchiks and KGB officers who believe they control the country’s information channels, and another of progressive youth who can easily hashtag #FuckKGB on their laptops and smartphones. According to 2010 United Nations statistics, 31.7 percent of Belarusians use the Internet. Of those, more than 60 percent live in Minsk. A quarter of families own a computer. Under these conditions, even Stalin couldn’t survive for long.
The independent media have been quick to jump through this Internet loophole. The majority of newspapers, including Novy Chas and Nasha Niva, have websites that often are more popular than their print versions. Others, like Salidarnosts (Solidarity), which was banned from state distribution in 2005, have migrated completely online. “It’s too early to say whether print editions will become unnecessary—there is still a lot of respect in our culture for print,” said Aliaksandr Starykevich, the editor in chief. “But it’s clear that Internet use is growing very fast.” Today, it is one of the ten most popular media sites in Belarus, with about 10,000 daily unique visitors.
As in the case of Salidarnosts, the Lukashenko regime’s repressive policies may be accelerating the digitization of Belarusian journalism. Websites without print arms are not legally considered mass media, and thus can escape many of the regime’s stringent regulations and random warnings. That has created a new public sphere in Belarus where news sites and opinion blogs enjoy a measure of free expression. This summer, social media publicized and coordinated “silent protests,” where thousands of demonstrators across the country cleverly hoped to avoid arrest by protesting Lukashenko’s regime by gathering and simply clapping hands. “The authorities have not yet found an effective mechanism to counteract the online distribution of criticism,” said Andrej Skurko of Nasha Niva. “The Internet remains the last bastion of free speech.”
Not that there isn’t serious online censorship. In 2010, Lukashenko’s government introduced 12 new Internet regulations, including Article 60, which requires Internet providers to identify all devices (both computers and mobile phones) used by private individuals to access the Web. Customers of cybercafés must provide personal details before going online. Both strategies breach the protective anonymity of the Internet, and aim to intimidate. Since January, businesses operating within Belarus must only use Belarusian domains, which allows the government to monitor and shut down undesirable sites. In addition, a so-called Center of Operations and Analysis has been set up to monitor online content and block access from computers inside government organizations and state-owned companies to sites that promote pornography, violence, or extremist views. Of course, that policy has been interpreted quite liberally: in addition to porn, the websites of Charter 97, the Viasna Human Rights Center, and opposition bloggers have been filtered. (The sites remain accessible from private computers.)
“A few years ago the authorities did not realize the power of the Internet, but now they’re trying to strengthen their position online and pay attention to websites,” said Marina Zolotova, the editor in chief of tut.by, Belarus’s biggest Internet portal and online news service. “Big Brother is watching you.” Founded in 2000 as an e-mail provider, today tut.by hosts user-generated content and the work of its own professional journalists. It boasts about 500,000 unique visitors daily, 200,000 of whom read the news section. “The government doesn’t know yet what exactly to make of the Internet, but I don’t think they’ll go down the road of China,” she added.
In fact, Zolotova doesn’t see direct online or print censorship as the greatest threat to Belarus’s media. “We have a strange, bipolar system,” she said. “It would be normal if we divided the press into state-owned and privately-owned, but here the division is between government media and opposition media. This is the biggest problem in Belarus—it’s very difficult to get objective information, not colored by political agendas. There is no objective reporting in the state media, but that is also true of some opposition outlets.”
It may seem a bit idealistic, though, to expect objectivity in a country like Belarus, where the state continues to harass and intimidate reporters, where opposition media are always under threat of closure, and where detractors of the regime are often jailed on trumped-up charges. During last summer’s clapping protests, 95 journalists were apprehended by the authorities under various pretexts; 13 were jailed for up to two weeks. Opposition sites like Charter 97 were subject to denial-of-services attacks and hacks. As the Belarusian Association of Journalists’ Andrei Bastunets said, “There is still very big legal, political, and economic pressure on independent media in Belarus.” To pretend otherwise at this point is to ignore the basic realities on the ground. As long as the government tries to repress independent journalists, it will be natural for those journalists to rebel and speak up.
In Belarus, the realms of public and private cannot be separated. Recently, a friend of the political prisoner Zmitser Dashkevich decided to send him a telegram, using the state’s phone service. He read out his message to the operator: “Zmitser, hold on. I believe we’ll soon vanquish the mustachioed vermin!” The operator refused to deliver it, saying that she knew it referred to Lukashenko. The friend was asked to compose another, more suitable message. “Zmitser, hold on,” he said. “Stay strong. Long live Belarus.”