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.”