The Media Today

Amid an election and an uprising, Belarus cracks down on protesters and journalists

August 11, 2020

In May, authorities in Belarus arrested Sergei Tikhanovsky, a popular YouTuber who used his videos to shine a light on living conditions in the former Soviet country that’s often been called “Europe’s last dictatorship.” Tikhanovsky had signaled his intention to challenge Alexander Lukashenko, “Europe’s last dictator,” in an upcoming presidential election. Supporters of Tikhanovsky took to the streets; some brandished slippers in reference to a video in which one of Tikhanovsky’s interlocutors likened Lukashenko to a cockroach. With Tikhanovsky in jail, his wife, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, decided to run in his place. Tikhanovsky wasn’t the only opposition candidate that officials barred from the ballot, but they allowed Tikhanovskaya to compete, seemingly as a sexist joke. (In May, Lukashenko said during a campaign stop that a woman president “would collapse, poor thing.”) The joke backfired; Tikhanovskaya’s campaign quickly gained momentum. In late July, she addressed the biggest political rally in Belarusian history. “I don’t need power,” she said. “But my husband is behind bars. I had to hide my children. I’m sick of putting up with it.”

The election was held on Sunday. Officials swiftly announced that Lukashenko had won with 80 percent of the vote. (At least one US headline uncritically parroted that pronouncement, and Twitter objected.) Protesters poured into the streets of Minsk, the capital of Belarus, and other cities nationwide to decry electoral fraud, and Tikhanovskaya refused to accept the result. Then, yesterday, she disappeared. Concern for her safety—exacerbated by Belarus’s long history of disappearing dissidents—spread among foreign officials and reporters online; Christopher Miller, who covers Eastern Europe for BuzzFeed, reported that even Tikhanovskaya’s staff didn’t know where she was. Earlier today, it emerged that Tikhanovskaya had arrived safely in Lithuania, a neighboring democracy. She said she’d fled Belarus of her own accord.

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Last night, protests against the election “result” continued. So far, Belarusian law enforcement have met demonstrators with violence, including the use of tear gas and rubber bullets; according to Abdujalil Abdurasulov, of the BBC, officers hauled some of them into vans and beat them. At least one protester has died. The Lukashenko regime hasn’t just engaged in physical repression; it also appears to have crippled Belarus’s communications infrastructure, blocking the internet, cellphone signals, and even landlines and VPNs, which are commonly used to circumvent web blockages. Speaking yesterday, Lukashenko blamed the outages on distributed denial of service attacks originating from abroad, but there’s currently little reason to trust that explanation. “The truth of what’s going on in Belarus isn’t really knowable right now,” Alp Toker, director of NetBlocks, a group that tracks internet outages globally, told Wired. “But there’s no indication of a DDoS attack. It can’t be ruled out, but there’s no external sign of it that we see.”

Inevitably, journalists have been affected by all this. Belarus has long had a dire information climate—last year, the Committee to Protect Journalists rated it the ninth-most censored country on earth; this year, Reporters Without Borders ranked it 153rd out of 180 countries on its World Press Freedom Index—but things seem to have gotten worse in the runup to the election. Between May and the end of July, Belarusian authorities arrested more than 40 journalists; meanwhile, Lukashenko personally accused the BBC and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, an editorially-independent broadcaster that is funded by the US government, of fomenting unrest, and said they should be kicked out of the country. In the days leading up to the vote, officials detained three reporters with Current Time, an RFE/RL service; journalists from TV Rain, an independent Russian outlet; and Alexander Burakov, a correspondent with the German broadcaster Deutsche Welle. Burakov spent his birthday in jail.

On Sunday night, as protests against Lukashenko’s victory declaration flared, at least four Russian journalists were jailed in Minsk. One of them, Maxim Solopov, a reporter with the independent outlet Meduza, has not been heard from since. Earlier today, in a post headlined “Gone without a trace,” Solopov’s colleagues laid out his last known movements. “Meduza telephoned every police station, detention center, and hospital in Minsk,” as well as various Belarusian officials and the foreign ministries of Russia and Latvia, Solopov’s colleagues wrote. “Despite these efforts, after more than 24 hours, we know virtually nothing about what happened.” A witness said that police beat Solopov during his arrest. According to CPJ, Mstyslav Chernov, a photographer with the AP, and Anton Starikov and Dimitri Lasenko, of the Russian site Daily Storm, were also beaten on Sunday. Yesterday, officers shot Nataliya Lyubneuskaya, of the independent news site Nasha Niva, with a rubber bullet.

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There are parallels between the threats to reporters in Belarus and the way US law enforcement officers have targeted journalists covering the recent protests in Minnesota, New York, Oregon, and elsewhere. Since President Trump took office, media watchers have often remarked that his abuse of the press has emboldened the world’s autocrats to behave likewise. That view, while sometimes correct, has often been ahistorical; Trump didn’t invent threats to the US media, and Lukashenko and his ilk have never needed emboldening. Instead, it’s more useful to view the present domestic threats as a wake-up call. Belarus, of course, is far less free than the US. Still, the global press-freedom fight is, in many ways, one fight, from Minneapolis to Minsk, and it merits sustained attention—regardless of who the US president is, and beyond individual flashpoints like stolen elections. If democracy dies in darkness, authoritarianism thrives in it.

Below, more on Belarus and global press freedom:

  • Belarus, I: In recent weeks, Western news organizations have made the case that Lukashenko may finally be losing his grip on power in Belarus, due to a cocktail of factors including popular dissatisfaction with his handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Other experts and analysts have expressed a more pessimistic view. In late July, RFE/RL’s Tony Wesolowsky assessed one locus of Lukashenko’s power—state media. “While many older Belarusians may still get their news from state media, younger generations are relying more and more on social media and online independent sites,” he reported. “And those sources are far from loyal, let alone fawning.”
  • Belarus, II: In 2018, Ben Smith—who was then editor in chief of BuzzFeed News, and is now media columnist at the New York Timesreflected on covering an election in Belarus in 2001, right before 9/11. “You learn how to be a reporter in large part by making mistakes, and I made most of my worst ones in Belarus,” Smith wrote. “I’ve been thinking about them lately because so much of what we were wrestling with then feels relevant.” Yesterday, he reupped the piece on Twitter, and noted that he finds the current turmoil in Belarus to be both “inspiring and heartbreaking.”
  • Hong Kong: Yesterday was another dark day for press freedom in Hong Kong: citing a draconian new security law, authorities arrested at least 10 pro-democracy activists and journalists including Jimmy Lai, the owner of the newspaper Apple Daily, whose newsroom was simultaneously raided by hundreds of police officers. The Atlantic’s Timothy McLaughlin writes that Lai’s detention is “Hong Kong’s most brazen arrest yet.”
  • Iran: Yesterday, authorities in Iran shuttered Jahane Sanat, a business newspaper, after it quoted an expert casting doubt on the country’s official coronavirus case and death counts. (The BBC recently reported that both counts are much lower than the true figures.) The AP has more details.
  • Syria: This week marks eight years since Austin Tice, an American freelance journalist, disappeared while reporting in Syria. (Today is his 39th birthday.) His family is still campaigning for Tice’s safe return. Yesterday morning, Joel Simon, the executive director of CPJ, tweeted “#FreeAustinTice”—a message he plans to repost every Monday morning “as a reminder that while Austin is missing, he is not forgotten.” (Simon wrote about the case for CJR on the sixth anniversary of Tice’s disappearance, in 2018.)
  • Lebanon: Protests continue, too, in Lebanon, where residents have risen up against government corruption and incompetence in the wake of the calamitous explosion in Beirut a week ago today. Yesterday, Hassan Diab, Lebanon’s prime minister, resigned. He will stay on as a caretaker leader until a new government can be formed.

Other notable stories:

  • CJR’s Betsy Morais and Alexandria Neason show how the stories of the pandemic, the protests, and the campaign are all one. With Joe Biden saying relatively little in public, Trump has “waged a campaign that is not so much against his political opponent as it is against the American people,” Morais and Neason write. “In press coverage, Trump’s response to the anti-racism protests has often been presented as a facet of the 2020 elections. But in truth, the uprising tells the campaign story.” (In June, Morais and Neason wrote a similar piece charting “six months of life and death in America.”)
  • Also on the subject of the election, Ethan Zuckerman writes, for The Atlantic, that Trump and the pandemic have helped “compress” the news agenda to the point where normal campaign coverage is getting crowded out. Since March, Biden has appeared in just 5 percent of news stories. Elsewhere, Digiday’s Steven Perlberg writes that if Trump loses in November, news outlets could see a negative impact on their ratings and bottom lines.
  • The Guardian and Kaiser Health News are out this morning with “Lost on the frontline,” a collaborative database that aims, in the absence of reliable official statistics, to commemorate every healthcare worker who has died from COVID-19 in the US. The Guardian and KHN are inviting local newsrooms to partner on the project, as well as contributions from late healthcare workers’ family and friends. You can contribute here.
  • Slate’s William Saletan makes the case that Trump is personally responsible for America’s COVID-19 death count. “This isn’t speculation. All the evidence is in the public record,” he writes. “But the truth, unlike Trump’s false narrative, is scattered in different places. It’s in emails, leaks, interviews, hearings, scientific reports, and the president’s stray remarks.” Saletan’s article, he writes, aims to “put those fragments together.”
  • For CJR, Bill Grueskin argues that we should stop using the term “dog whistle” to describe Trump’s racism, because it implies that the racism is subtle when it’s actually audible to everyone. To prove his point, Grueskin spoke with a British firm that manufactures dog whistles. “There’s no way that we, as a serious whistle-maker, would make a product that you couldn’t hear,” the company’s head of sales and marketing said.
  • The Daily Beast’s Maxwell Tani has a deep dive on the turmoil at Sports Illustrated, the once-venerated magazine that has found itself caught up in wrangling between The Maven, which controls SI’s content, Authentic Brands Group, which owns the SI brand, and Meredith, the magazine’s former owner. One inside source likened the situation to “a custody battle” where “neither parent had the child’s best interests in mind.”
  • NBC’s Ari Sen and Brandy Zadrozny obtained records documenting the QAnon conspiracy’s dizzying reach on Facebook, the scope of which was previously unknown to the news media since most QAnon groups are private. A Facebook spokesperson declined to be named by NBC, fearing harassment from QAnon followers. As several tech reporters pointed out, Facebook has enabled the spread of such harassment.
  • Maria Bustillos, CJR’s public editor for MSNBC, explores the network’s similarities with former President Barack Obama. “They are rich, sleek, and corporate-friendly. They staff their organizations with urbane meritocrats. Both institutions rely on a kind of soft-focus patriotism that stops shy of nationalism,” Bustillos writes. “Consequently, it’s no surprise that Obama meets with little criticism on MSNBC.”
  • And Trump’s White House press briefing last night was interrupted when a Secret Service agent escorted the president from the podium. Shortly afterward, Trump returned; he said that officers outside the White House had shot a suspect who claimed that they were armed. It’s still not clear that this was the case. The AP has more.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.