by Tatyana Ivanova
Belarus is the only member, aside from Russia, of the Union State. The two countries have a common customs area and a military treaty, but different financial systems, economics, governance and legislation. They also have similar approaches to human rights, particularly freedom of speech, though Belarus is more advanced in its repressions. Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko started persecuting independent journalists before Vladimir Putin even became Russian president.
Belarus currently has highly vindictive legislation and practices that restrict any kind of independent journalistic activity. The Belarusian law on mass media, for instance, prohibits journalists from collaborating with foreign mass media without permission from the Belarusian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This law effectively limits Belarusians from getting information from independent sources about life in their own country, because most Belarusian mass media are under government control to some extent.
Journalists are sued and fined annually in Belarus for collaboration with foreign mass media even if they are freelance writers or are just shooting video. If this pattern of suppression has changed over the last decades, it has been only in the direction of tightening control. There were no improvements even in 2016. That’s when the EU and United States lifted the sanctions imposed after the presidential elections of 2010 when the Belarussian authorities harassed and expelled hundreds of people from the country, including journalists from the independent mass media. The opposition web-resource Charter’97 at that time lost its founder and editor-in-chief, Oleg Bebenin, who was found dead at his country house some months before the election. After the elections, Charter’97 editor Natalia Radina fled the country. Later she opened offices of Charter’97 in Lithuania and Poland.
The Ministry of Information controls Belarusian mass media. It also is responsible for issuing licenses for mass media or websites that permit them to work in Belarus. All publishing by mass media is prohibited without this permission.
The Belarusian government continues to exert draconian control over mass media despite the so-called liberalization and thaw period in relations with the West. Although the U.S. and EU initiate constructive dialogue with Belarus, new violations of freedom of expression keep appearing. In 2017-2018, the authorities have banned two popular independent websites and harassed dozens of journalists working for independent mass media. According to the Human Rights organization Viasna, journalists were detained 101 times in 2017, fined for “cooperation with foreign media without accreditation” in 69 cases, and arrested in 12 cases.
During the last few years, Lukashenko has continued his policy of repression and persecution, most clearly manifested in the mass arrests in the spring of 2017 and attacks on independent mass media and journalists. At the same time, Western countries including the United States believe that the country has made some progress toward liberalization.
Freedom House, in its annual report for 2017, removed Belarus from the list of “worst of the worst” countries for the press, placing it instead on the list of “Biggest Gains in 2016.” According to the organization, “in a positive break from past behavior, the state allowed media coverage of the September 2016 parliamentary elections to proceed without violent obstruction or interference by security forces.” At the same time the organization notes a lot of negative developments involving abuse of the country’s restrictive legal framework to penalize critical reporting in 2016 and prosecuting a number of media workers on charges including defamation, incitement, extremism, and illegal production of content. As a result, Belarus stubbornly remains on the list of “not free” countries with regard to the press, as well as “not free” at all without significant changes in the Freedom in the World reports for 2017 and 2018.
In spring 2016, the EU and the USA lifted sanctions originally imposed on Belarus after the falsification of the presidential elections and the crackdowns on mass protests in 2010-2011. According to Freedom House there have been no significant positive changes since 2011, and the country is characterized as not free with a score 6.5, very close to the worst possible score of 7. Nevertheless, EU officials took Lukashenko’s 2015 release of political prisoners as a sign of positive changes—even though the prisoner release was a PR move and the elections that year were still not free. In 2015, the opposition boycotted the presidential elections because the authorities eliminated opposition candidates from the list. But remembering the brutal crackdown of 2010, the opposition didn’t call citizens in 2015 to take to the streets. As a result, foreign observers misinterpreted the lack of public dissent as a positive sign rather than a reluctant response to repression.
Belarus is one of four countries in the world where the image of the United States has improved in the Trump era, jumping 11 points in a Gallup world leadership poll. In the Atlantic, Yasmeen Serhan attributes the shift to “Trump’s leadership style” rather than any specific U.S. policies. So, despite the shift in Freedom House’s evaluation of the situation inside Belarus, a substantial thaw in relations between the country and the West is not likely on the horizon—particularly given Lukashenko’s continued targeting of independent websites and the unemployed.
Blocking Websites, Targeting “Parasites”
On January 24, the Belarusian Ministry of Information blocked access to the independent web-resource Charter’97, which is well known in Belarus, in all parts of the country. This has been done before, during the presidential elections in 2010 and in advance of big street rallies announced by the Belarusian opposition. This case is different because the restriction is not short-term but indefinite. Rather than an action of the Belarusian KGB as before, the prohibition came from the Ministry of Information, which accused Charter’97 of “publishing prohibited information and endangering national security.” The decision also was made without any trial or legal procedure. Human-rights defenders as well as independent journalist organizations consider it an obvious attack on freedom of speech.
Significantly, the popular Charter’97 website, which criticized Lukashenko’s decree, was banned the day before his new decree against so-called “social parasites.” Thus the real reason for the legislation has nothing to do with “endangering national security.” Rather, it’s to prevent mass protests against the new, repressive legislation. Similarly, on December 14, 2017, the Ministry of Information banned another popular opposition website, Belarusian Partisan, also without any legal procedure and with similar wording. Belarusian Partizan is an opposition resource founded by Pavel Sheremet, whom Lukashenko expelled from the country years ago and who was murdered in Kiev in the summer of 2016.
Charter’97 wasn’t the only target of Lukashenko’s new version of the old decree “on preventing social parasitism.” A website run by one of the most active defenders of the rights of unemployed people, the REP Independent trade union, was hacked. The leaders of REP reported that they lost control over their web-resource on January 30
All last year the organization struggled against the previous draconian decree on “social parasitism,” which required the unemployed to pay fines to the government. As result, that decree was suspended, but Lukashenko didn’t give up. The revised version of the same bill that Lukashenko signed on January 25, 2018 abolishes the fine, but instead requires that unemployed inhabitants pay the full cost of utilities and other civic services, which the government normally subsidizes.
Andrei Strizhak, a lawyer for REP, worries that this version of the decree could hit the poor and unemployed population even harder than the previous one would have done had protests not forced its suspension. The full cost for utilities and other costs could be significantly higher than the fine the unemployed would have had to pay in spring 2017. At the same time it would give great latitude to local authorities to abuse their new power. The decree requires the formation of local state commissions to decide which unemployed will be considered parasites. The new law doesn’t, however, identify the criteria for such a decision.
Tatyana Ivanova is a Belarusian journalist residing in the United States. Photo: Protest in Helsinki, Finland in 2010 (Andrew Spratley via Flickr).