It is 18 years since Belarus gained its independence from the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Yet in a country that does not know the excess of the rich nor the desperation of the poor and where the unemployment rate is under two per cent, talking about politics, economy or society is still forbidden.
‘Slander against the government is punished as a criminal act, allowing the immediate suspension of the publications, as well as the arrest of the editors,’ says Andrei Aliaksandrau, a spokesperson of the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ). The head office of the BAJ is a little room on the ground floor of a Soviet-style building, not far away from the residence of Alexander Lukashenko – the President of Belarus for the last 15 years and the assassin of independent press. ‘If we look at the number of registered newspapers in our country, most of them are related to entertainment,’ explains Aliaksandrau. ‘There are only 20 independent publications covering topics such as politics or the economy, and they are facing a lot of problems.’
‘Press censorship is very easy,’ he continues. ‘We have two main distribution systems: the public kiosks, and the subscription system, which is run by the national post company. Both are state-owned and refuse anti-government press.’
President Lukashenko has built a powerful government based on the state monopoly of economic resources and repression of the opposition. Control of every aspect of life is part of the intimidation strategy. Indeed, the intelligence service is still called the KGB, as it was in the Soviet Union. Foreign broadcasting is also forbidden: ‘Only Russian channels are allowed, which are not better than our own in terms of democracy. They promote a kind of “Moscow-centred” vision of the world.’
Recently, the European Union (EU) reopened dialogue with Belarus to secure gas supplies for the continent. ‘Brussels has asked our Government to give more space to democracy,’ reveals Aliaksandrau. ‘However, there are no real changes. On the contrary, the authorities, in their support of the international fight against terrorism, are implementing a new amendment against extremism, which restricts freedom of expression even more.’
Official press and media are ‘completely manipulated by the authorities’, according to Olga, a 23-year-old from a village outside the capital, Minsk. ‘Only entertainment and fashion programmes and the President’s speech about the greatness of Hitler and Stalin are broadcast on television. The audience seriously believes that our President is a world-respected figure, just being provoked by US and EU spies for being such an independent thinker. In the villages, where there is no phone, no electricity and no water supply, people think elections are a day for thanking “Father” Lukashenko who saved the country from Western invasion.’
‘Independent media are moving online,’ concludes Aliaksandrau. ‘But there is absolutely no internet access outside the cities.’ It is hard for him to see things improving, but he will not give up: ‘We can only hope! As history teaches us, the most powerful empires can collapse in a few weeks…’