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.
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.”