The Blogosphere: A peephole to freedom under Minsk’s sky
Giacomo Manca interviews Dzmitry Halko, a Belarusian journalist and blogger, about the situation of digital freedom in Belarus and its role in providing independent information
How would you describe being a blogger in Belarus?
That’s a difficult question. I don’t consider myself to be a blogger who can do something that will be risky, even if the situation is changing. In Belarus, being a journalist is much riskier than being a blogger. This may seem strange and even paradoxical, but blogging has for a long time been an area of freedom in Belarus, mostly because Lukashenka didn’t realise the potential of the internet until recently. He doesn’t know it and he doesn’t use it, and that’s why he doesn’t understand its strength. It is something new for him, something still unknown and therefore it is not dangerous.
It may not be dangerous, but I’ve read that you were imprisoned…
I’ve been imprisoned four times, but the first three times I was taken in with many other people. The last time I was arrested alone and at an addressed arrest, and I am not really sure about the reason for this. I think it was due to my activity as a journalist more than as a blogger. The censors check the newspapers and news websites, but they never observed the blogs, at least until now. It happened one time that a blogger was taken to trial and this was not due to Lukashenka. It was because of another guy, a politician not important at all in my opinion. This blogger made an insulting collage of this politician, and they blocked his blog and the whole social network LiveJournal for a while. The blogger had to change his account, but at the end of the day he was just fined. There are a few isolated cases like this one. If we look at the blogosphere, Belarus doesn’t look like “the last dictatorship of Europe”, at least not as much. There is relative freedom. However, things are changing concerning the blogs and sharing content on the internet, and the controls are tightening.
Are Lukashenka and his regime getting more interested in controlling the internet?
There was a big story that spread all over the news and social media in Belarus last summer. Ruslan Mirzoev, a man who worked at the Minsk Automobile Plant, made an amateur video about the place of his work and uploaded it online. He made it mostly for fun, but it was considered by the public and the authorities to be something socially critical. I wouldn’t say that the video was showing something really horrible; however, the picture of the factory was quite miserable when compared to the varnished pictures that are generated by government propaganda. If you don’t work at a plant yourself, you don’t know what the things there are like. No independent journalist is allowed to enter them and see for himself. So the public had to swallow what they were given by the propaganda. When a gritty piece of reality came, it was almost shocking. No wonder it went viral. Ruslan Mirzoev was first fired and then arrested for a week. This shows that the internet is getting more and more dangerous.
And so what is the reason why you were imprisoned the last time?
I don’t know for sure; I justhave some thoughts on it. Of course, there is somebody who controls what we write in the newspapers. The system is slow, but it observes us, reporting data. Last year, I wrote a lot on the trial following the terrorist attack in the Minsk metro in 2011, mostly as a blogger, not as a journalist. Surprisingly, it had good resonance and they noticed it. They probably noticed it again when I wrote on that topic once more and wrote it down. At this point, they just needed some good excuse to take me; they could not come to my flat and arrest me because it would be a scandal, and people would talk about this for days. They decided to make it look routine, as they arrest political activists regularly. I was participating in a meeting with some guys who were released from prison. When I went back home, they arrested me and the other journalist who was with me. The message on this experience is a warning: “Be careful. If you don’t understand the meaning of this arrest there might be really bad repercussions.” A policeman exhorted me: “This time we will give you an administrative arrest – something like five or 10 days – but the next time you will have a criminal prosecution.” It was probably nothing serious, but it’s still frightening. Normally, when arrests happen people are usually brought to their cell with five or 10 other guys. The detention never lasts more than 15 days. This time, I changed three cells and I was left in the last one was for four days. There, I was with a guy who had been imprisoned for 25 years and was a true criminal. I never discovered for what reason I was put there.
What do you usually write about in your blog?
The last entry that had social and political meaning was about the terrorist act in Minsk and the trial of Kanavalau and Kavalyou, the men persecuted for it. Especially about Kavalyou, who didn’t do anything, or to put it better, we don’t know what he did. We just know that he met Kanavalau and helped him to bring a bag, nothing more. I don’t even know if Kanavalau was guilty; he probably wasn’t, but without a doubt Kavalyou wasn’t guilty. I wrote about him a lot; it was a series of long posts. Another thing I did as a blogger was taking part in a hunger strike some years ago during the summer of 2011. It was a period of frequent political imprisonments, and as a blogger I thought I couldn’t bear it. I told myself that I couldn’t just look at it and I couldn’t live in a country when there are political prisoners like these. There was one particular guy, the youngest among the arrested who was 20 years old. He was sentenced to four or five years of prison. For this reason I went on hunger strike. I carried this on for 25 days, writing about it in my blog. I wrote about 10 posts on this experience, which had good resonance from the very beginning. Several news websites wrote about it and the radio called me, asking me to explain my decision. This guy is now free, thanks to an amnesty that Lukashenka granted to about 25 or 30 people.
You said that you’re not a journalist, and that you’re just blogging. How can an independent blogger survive in Belarus? Where do you work?
I ceased to be a journalist in 2011 when I decided I could not bear it anymore and I didn’t want to undertake so many rules. We all know that journalists should be objective, but a blogger is not obliged to this. For about a year, I left my job as a journalist and continued to write just as a blogger. It was during my hunger strike, when I took part in a silent protest. Later, when Lukashenka freed a lot of political prisoners, I thought that the situation was changing a little bit and I decided to return to journalism.
So are you working for any newspaper or magazine at the moment?
Before this break I first worked for Radio Free EuropeandRadio Liberty. It was the best job I ever had and it gave me a really good salary. However, after that year when I decided to put aside official journalism, I couldn’t return. After all, my job sometime also made me feel inconsistent. I was protesting in support of the political prisoners in Belarus, but at the same time I was working for an American radio financed by the State Department, by a country that violates human rights in Guantanamo Bay. I decided to look for something elsealso for this reason. Afterwards, I worked for newspaper and the website of Narodnaja Volya (“The People’s Will”), the main independent newspaper in Belarus. I worked mainly for the website, but I had to change my job because of some problems of personal nature with the chief editor. Now, I work with another newspaper.
What is the level of awareness, in your opinion, of Belarusian citizens regarding the importance of freedom of speech?
I know that this may sound strange, but they actually have freedom of expression! The ones who use the blogs have freedom of speech, but it seems that they don’t appreciate it; neither do they use it worthily. They don’t understand that this freedom can be taken away at any moment.
But how can we call this “freedom”? Isn’t it dangerous that you don’t know the consequences of this freedom and that it can get you arrested?
I think so; it can happen at any moment. Someone can see something he doesn’t like, maybe Lukashenka. They have this freedom just because Lukashenka doesn’t use the internet. Nevertheless, mainstream thinking brings everybody to accept the situation and be satisfied with it.
What is the situation of the Belarusian press?
There are about four independent newspapers, but as far as I know three of them are financed by some foreign donors and just one is run by itself and survives because of advertisements. One of these newspapers is pro-Russian and has a very ironic, even sarcastic attitude towards the government as well as the opposition and many aspects of Belarusian society, but we can call it independent. Then there are five main news websites.
And what about the official press?
Of course, it is well developed. The television is controlled by the government, and it has four channels. I don’t know everything about it because I don’t watch television. Then there is a lot of press and the biggest newspaper, which has a circulation of 300,000 copies, is pro-government. To be frank, I don’t know how these copies are sold; I never see people reading them. I never see them in public transportation or anywhere else.
Who visits your blog?
I would say that 40 or 50 per cent of my readers are Russians. I started this blog when I lived in Russia. Then there are the Belarusians and among them people from the opposition and NGO activists. There are between 100,000 and 200,000 people who receive my blog’s updates. Unfortunately, at the moment LiveJournal is dying; people are moving to Facebook and visits to blogs are decreasing. Maybe people register on Facebook just because it is something new in Belarus, and so it’s attractive. I don’t really like Facebook because it is a close social network, good for close communities of friends; I can’t write something addressed to the whole societyon Facebook.
Why did you decide to become a blogger?
Well, let’s say that the situation in Belarus is unique. You cannot say anything critical or relevant elsewhere. It is not possible in the Parliament, and it is almost impossible in the press and, of course, you cannot just shout your ideas in the street. It was the only place you could say something socially important that can be noticed. That’s why I started the blog several years ago.
Giacomo Manca is a Contributing Editor with New Eastern Europe. Currently, he is studying for a MA in International Relations at the University of Bologna.