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.