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.