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.