Unfinished business in Belarus

Earlier this year, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya decided to run for president in Belarus, a country widely known as “Europe’s last dictatorship,” after her husband, a popular YouTuber who had planned to run himself, was jailed. Alexander Lukashenko, the longtime dictator, allowed Tikhanovskaya to stand, and used her candidacy as an opportunity to crack sexist jokes. But her bid quickly gained momentum, drawing thousands of Belarusians into the streets to demand change. They didn’t get it—an election was held in August, officials declared Lukashenko the winner amid widespread claims of massive fraud, and Tikhanovskaya went into exile in neighboring Lithuania. But Belarusians haven’t given up. Massive protests against Lukashenko’s rule have continued on a weekly basis. The authorities have continued to respond with violence.

As I wrote in August, journalists have been swept up in the repression. Officials arrested more than forty reporters between May and July as the protests swelled, and detained others in the days either side of the election—further tightening an already-dire climate for press freedom. On election night, law enforcement in Minsk, the capital, arrested four Russian journalists including Maxim Solopov, of the independent Russian outlet Meduza. (As of my writing, his colleagues had been unable to locate him; it turned out he was being deported to Russia.) The authorities beat Solopov and several other reporters, and shot Nataliya Lyubneuskaya, of Nasha Niva, at close range with a rubber bullet. She subsequently spent thirty-eight days in a hospital. “This is the award the state has given me for my work as a journalist. No apology, no criminal case against the shooter, and, God forbid, no compensation,” she told Meduza in September. (In fact, officials said they would fine Nasha Niva for failing to give timely notice of a workplace injury.) “That was my favorite pair of jeans and a one-of-a-kind leg,” Lyubneuskaya added. “I’m getting through my trauma just like other Belarusians—through humor, because fear doesn’t help and justice is over.”

From the magazine: Out of Nowhere

The press threats haven’t let up since then. The Belarusian Association of Journalists (which recently received a press-freedom award from the Canadian and British governments) reported three-hundred-and-thirty-five arrests of reporters between August 9 and November 9. Many of them were handed short prison sentences; Reporters Without Borders calculated that they collectively served more than six-hundred-and-fifty days in jail in the same time period. On November 12, Roman Bondarenko, a protester who had been beaten by police, died in hospital; three days later, protesters took to the streets with signs that read, “I’m going out” (the last known words that Bondarenko typed on the messaging app Telegram), and officials detained over a thousand people nationwide—a record-setting single-day figure that included at least twenty-three journalists. Ihar Karney, Andrey Shaulyuha, Andrey Rabchyk, and Yulia Kotskaya, who were on assignment for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, a broadcaster funded by the US government, were among those arrested, as were Katsyarina Andreyeva and Darya Chultsova, of Belsat TV, a Poland-based channel aimed at Belarusian viewers. Andreyeva was filming the protests from a private apartment when ten or so officers broke down the door and took her away; she initially spent a week in jail, but now faces more serious charges and a possible three-year sentence. Last week, her husband, Ihar Ilyash, who also works for Belsat, was arrested, too, even though he hasn’t been covering the protests. Meanwhile, Katsiaryna Barysevich, a court reporter with the independent news site Tut.by, was arrested while investigating Bondarenko’s death. A doctor she quoted faces criminal charges for “disclosing medical secrets.”

Reporters in Belarus have more to worry about than just being arrested. The Lukashenko regime placed restrictions on internet access and blocked access to more than a hundred news sites; in early October, it revoked the media credentials of Tut.by through the end of the year. (While the revocation removed various access privileges, Tut.by pointed out that accreditation is voluntary, and vowed to continue publishing.) Officials deported two Associated Press journalists, and eventually canceled almost all other accreditation for foreign outlets. “Every time I tried to renew it, I was told, ‘unfortunately the commission in charge can’t meet because of COVID-19,’” Nick Connolly, who covered the protests for the German broadcaster Deutsche Welle, said—an unconvincing argument, since Lukashenko has said that people can stave off the disease by going to the sauna and drinking vodka. In late October, a court declared that NEXTA-Live—a Telegram channel that has live-streamed the protests to millions of followers—and its logo are “extremist material.” Officials placed the channel’s top editors, Stepan Putilo and Roman Protasevich, under criminal investigation, and have been trying to extradite them to Belarus from Poland, where they are based.

Despite the bleakness of the picture in Belarus, there are grounds for hope. Journalists have continued with their coverage, despite the immense pressures they face, and many Belarusians appear to be tuning in. “People don’t trust state media and don’t trust Lukashenko,” Anton Trafimovich, an RFE/RL correspondent in Minsk, told Nieman Reports recently. “The media don’t quote him as much as before because there are new speakers. He is not the agenda setter anymore.” In late September, Samuel Greene, of King’s College London, and Anna Lyubimtseva, of Sociolytics, surveyed media consumers in Belarus; fewer than a third of respondents said that they watch state TV, with three quarters saying that they get their news on social media. Nearly sixty percent of respondents said they regularly follow Tut.by’s coverage, and nearly half said they get news from Telegram, with many respondents saying that they discovered those sources in the last few months. In addition to the protests, Greene and Lyubimtseva argue that Lukashenko’s mismanagement of the pandemic diminished confidence in state media. “When policy fails, propaganda can pick up the slack. However, when both fail, revolution ensues,” they wrote in the Washington Post, summarizing general research on autocracy. “The Belarusian case suggests there’s an intermediary step: turning off the TV.”

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And cracks have started to show in Lukashenko’s grip on power, even if their depth remains hard to gauge. Last Thursday, Russia, the key regional guarantor of Lukashenko’s stability, sent Sergey Lavrov, its foreign minister, to Minsk, where he urged Lukashenko to follow through on constitutional reform; the next day, Lukashenko indicated that he supports weakening the powers of the president, and hinted that he would not serve under a new constitutional settlement, though he did not offer a timeline or any other details. Belarusian opposition leaders accused him of stalling, and have continued to demand his immediate ouster.

Watch this space. In the meantime, we owe journalists in Belarus solidarity and at least a portion of our ongoing attention. Western outlets have continued to cover the protests, but since the immediate crisis of August, they’ve struggled to cut through the crowded news cycle in the US, in particular. Change does not happen on a cable-news timeline; it requires patience, fortitude, and, often, telling the same truths over and over again. The protesters in Belarus understand this well. So do the country’s bruised, yet determined, reporters.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.