Hear the voices from Belarus

All over the world, the “social networks” continue to play an important role in the struggle for democracy. This is happening right now in Belarus, known as the last dictatorship of Europe, where KGB for a long time has been able to control and silence newspapers, radio and TV. But now the digital domain plays an increasingly important role in the fight for freedom of speech. Natallia Radzina, editor-in-chief at the independent news site charter97.org gives us a report from the front lines. 

July 2 2012 Text: Natallia Radzina Translation from Russian: Michel Vale

Throughout all the eighteen years of Aleksandr Lukashenko’s dictatorship, the authorities have done everything to stifle our voice. There is no freedom of speech in Belarus, just as the citizens of Belarus are deprived of other rights and freedoms as well. All have been cruelly and systematically obliterated because the slightest indulgence would threaten the dictatorship with collapse.

How free speech was crushed
In the first year of the dictatorship, blank spots began to appear in the newspapers. The censor had excised objectionable material directly in the press. Then they began to close the popular, independent newspapers, one by one. State television and radio became exclusively the mouthpieces of the dictatorship, and the doors to radio and television swung permanently closed to opposition.

Then journalists doing their own investigations of the crimes of Lukashenko and those around him began to be murdered. Dmitrii Zavadskii, operator of the Russian TV channel, was kidnapped and murdered. Veronika Cherkasova, a journalist for the newspaper Solidarnost was found dead. She had twenty-five knife wounds on her body. The last victim, Oleg Bebenin, founder of the site charter97.org, was hung in 2010 one week before the data of Presidential elections in Belarus was announced.

It is truly frightening and dangerous to work as a journalist in Belarus today. Nonetheless, we continue to bring reports on the crimes being committed in the very centre of Europe by the regime to Belarusans and the world community.

This involves great risk. The independent printed media still left in the country are subjected to the most severe pressure. The independent newspapers Narodnaya Volya, Nasha Niva, and Belarusy i rynok stand under permanent threat of closure. Fearing to forfeit their registration or simply lose their life, the journalists’ instinct of self-preservation clicks in, self-censorship puts in its appearance, and many topics are left in the dark. Even so, what these few surviving newspapers are able to print is extremely important and necessary. The media transmitting to Belarus from abroad; namely, the TV channel Belsat, Radio Liberty, Evroradio, are unfortunately unable to reach the majority of the country’s population. The authorities prevent their broadcasts at the technical level—e.g., by not allowing radio in the FM range, or by not allowing Belsat onto cable networks. Belarusan journalists are being persecuted massively by the prosecutor’s office and the special services.

The role of the Internet
Given such severe censorship, the threat of closure, and the impossibility of disseminating information to a wide audience through TV, radio or print the role of the Internet has grown. The example of the site charter97.org, of which I am the editor, shows that the Internet audience is most vigorously evolving. For instance, in the year after the presidential elections, despite the repression, the number of readers of our site doubled until today it can count on more than 120,000 hits every day. We are now the most popular independent news source at the same time as the sites of the official Belarus media occupy the last places in the ratings, which represent their true demand among the people. You cannot force people to visit the Internet site of Sovetskaya Belorussiya, the Internet site of the newspaper of Lukashenko’s administration in the same way as people are constantly being coerced into subscribing to the printed version of this propaganda paper.

As a consequence, the authorities have begun brutal retributions with the independent Internet media as well. For instance, in the year before the presidential elections, the site charter97.org experienced 5 house searches: At the site’s Minsk editorial offices and in my apartment more than 30 computers were confiscated three criminal proceedings were initiated, and on the day of the 2010 presidential elections I myself landed in prison charged with organizing protests against fraudulent voting. After spending 1.5 months in investigatory detention at the KGB. I was forced to flee the country on the eve of the court verdict. Today charter97.org works in Belarus from its offices in Vilnius and Warsaw.

Charter97.org is on a black list together with a number of other oppositional resources: The authorities block access to it from state institutions. But fortunately, it is impossible to fully block access to information on the Internet. There will always be ways to get information to the people—via Internet news resources and social networks.

In countries under dictatorships, everyone can be a journalist; Citizen’s journalism is becoming popular. People are gathering evidence and testimony themselves. They write about what is happening with them, their friends, and their neighbours They are not only making history, they are writing about it—thanks to the Internet.

Hence the authorities are resorting to truly criminal methods of pressuring, subjecting independent sites to powerful ddos attacks and blocking access to them on the ‘hottest’ news days, such as during the protest actions of the opposition on election day, at the level of Beltelekom, the state Internet provider. For example, on New Year’s Eve the charter97.org site crashed. Several of our staff’s computers were infected with viruses that caused them to trace all correspondence by post and Skype and steal passwords from the administrative section.

We did a study that produced astounding revelations. The computers of many independent journalists and opposition politicians in Belarus were similarly infected, enabling the special services to monitor all their activity. This business earned the moniker the “Belarus Watergate.”

How Belarus experienced the Arab Spring.
The Internet mobilization that led to revolutions in the countries of the Arab spring in Belarus provoked the disproportionately cruel reaction of the authorities. The Belarus regime acted in advance.

A few months after the 1910 presidential elections silent protests were organized through social networks. In response people were arrested en masse and beaten, groups on social networks were blocked, and their moderators were called in for interrogation to the KGB and recruited them. As a result many were forced to leave the country.

And of course this came about precisely thanks to collaboration with the Russian special services, because the Russian social networks Vkontakte and Odnoklassniki, are very popular in Belarus. Via the helping hand from Russia the Belarusan special services obtained information on the moderators of groups in these social networks.

Nonetheless I am sure that mobilization on the Internet will lead to changes in Belarus. Young activists and opposition politicians are arming themselves with their accumulated experience and becoming more careful and more inventive.

We need your solidarity
Now when in Belarus and abroad there are people and structures that are dutifully committed to actively work in full force to bring the advent to democracy closer the solidarity of the international community is of extreme importance to us. The European politics of sanctions on the Belarus regime must continue.

In prison it was not at all a nice thing to learn that the workers of the KGB special services guarding me, who would hide their faces behind masks and were armed with cudgels, were being maintained in part by European money. By buying its petroproducts and potassium fertilizers from Belarus, Europe is helping to maintain Lukashenko[s repressive apparatus, because the potassium business belong directly to the dictator's family and is controlled by the special services.

It is a fact that the authorities fear these sanctions. That is why they are threatening to make the call for sanctions a crime and are prohibiting the most active oppositionists from leaving the country.

No advantage and no amount of money should be more important than a human life. As long as political prisoners continue to be tortured in the prisons of Belarus, and as long as a dictatorship continues to rule at the centre of Europe, there must be no collaboration with the official authorities of Belarus. Otherwise this is a betrayal of the principles of freedom and democracy, for which the European nations had fought—a betrayal not only of Belarusans, who for 18 years have endured Lukashenko's Gulag, but also of themselves. Yet I still believe that my country will one day be free. As Martin Luther King once said: I have a dream.