Belarus. The two hidden mechanisms of media censorship
The Freedom of the Press ranking recently published by Freedom House has found Belarus’ media environment to be Europe’s most restrictive. The ranking placed Belarus as 192nd out of 199 countries and territories within the “worst of the worst” category. These results suggest that media freedom in Belarus has neither been influenced by the country’s recent improvements in its relations with the West nor by the rapid spread of digital technologies. Some of the business community’s representatives have been unsatisfied with the ranking’s results, which call for a deeper reflection on the hidden mechanisms of control that afflict Belarusian media.
According to the Freedom House report, Belarusian journalists work in similar conditions to journalists in Syria, Cuba, Iran and Uzbekistan. The report referred to Belarus’ freedom of press status as “not free,” while the country’s Press Freedom score, which defines its position in the ranking, has not changed over the past six years. Moreover, the ranking again labelled Belarus as the country with the most restricted media system in Europe.
Recent political developments in Belarus, as well as the rapid spread of new technologies, have sparked some hope that the government might loosen its grip on the media. Until recently, Belarus was referred to as “Europe’s last dictatorship”; since the Russia-Ukraine war, the Belarusian government has successfully reframed its image in the West. In February of 2016, the EU lifted sanctions against President Lukashenka and his circle, while talks with the regime intensified.
However, as the Freedom House ranking has shown, Lukashenka still firmly holds onto one of Belarus’ key instruments which has allowed him to stay in power – media control. According to Andrei Bastunets, the head of the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ), the situation is as grim as ever. “Almost nothing has changed over time. That is reflected in the ranking,” Bastunets wrote. “But we have almost gotten used to it.”
New technologies – old restrictions
Bastunec’s comment perfectly reflects the continuity of media restrictions in Belarus. Indeed, Belarus’ position in the ranking has not changed much within the past 10 years. However, within this timeframe the number of internet users in Belarus has multiplied fourfold. Unfortunately, as in most other countries, the advent of new technologies did not automatically bring democratic changes.
Belarusian authorities have had the chance to learn from other countries, such as China and Russia, on how to control information and communication using new technologies. In Belarus, the use of self-censorship and refocusing the media industry on commercialisation and entertainment have proven to be of great value. As Manuel Castells suggests in his book Communication Power, such practices have ultimately guaranteed almost full state control of the media in both Russia and China.
Self-censorship and the media system
In 2015 alone, 34 Belarusian media outlets, including the leading ones, received warnings from the Ministry of Information. Most of them received such a warning only once, as a second note per year could lead to the outlets’ closure. According to BAJ, these warnings were aimed at encouraging self-censorship.
However, it is very hard to measure self-censorship. It is also difficult to assess the fear that the killing of independent journalists might bring to other journalists. The Committee to Protect Journalists has mentioned at least five scandalous cases of journalists’ deaths in Belarus since 2002. This list includes Veronika Cherkasova, who was killed in 2004, and Aleh Byabenin, who was found hung in a stairway in 2010 just three months before the presidential election. Neither of these deaths have been properly investigated; nevertheless, many journalists and opposition politicians believe that they were politically motivated.
While there have been few recent cases of physical harassment against journalists in Belarus, this does not mean that past ones have not affected journalistic practices. Those politicians who were in power at the time of the killings still rule the country. The majority of journalists working in Belarus are most probably aware of the danger, as they remember the fate of some of their most prominent colleagues.
Chinese-style commercial control
Some media practitioners have disagreed with Freedom House’s harsh assessment of Belarus. Yuri Zisser, the owner of Belarus’ most popular website which publishes political content and a former member of Lukashenka’s former “civic council” (which has been disbanded), referred to the report as “drivel” and has suggested that “tireless Belarusian NGOs and migrants” are responsible for Belarus’ poor performance in the ranking. According to Zisser, unnamed migrants and NGOs “are enthusiastically portraying us to the world as North Korea.”
Indeed, no large company would be happy with its country having the image of “Europe’s last dictatorship”. Zisser’s internet portal tut.by presents itself as “independent” media and perhaps it technically is independent from the state. But it is not independent from its owner’s money and business. Big businesses in Belarus are aware of the fact that anyone could have the same fate as some of the businessmen listed in electronic newspaper Ezhednevnik‘s “Top 200”, who are currently in prison or hiding abroad. So far, tut.by has not been blocked by the government, in contrast to its main rival onliner.by.
Castells suggests that Western internet companies such as Google or Facebook are interested in media and internet freedom primarily because they have a stake in maximizing traffic and thus profits. Similarly, internet freedom works in tut.by’s favour; if the internet in Belarus is restricted to the degree that it is in North Korea or China, Zisser’s telecom business will immediately lose profits. But even a comparison with North Korea or China could harm a telecom company. Thus, commercial outlets owned by big businesses are definitely not happy with the “Belarus being like Cuba” image.
Indeed, after self-censorship, the economy’s condition is another great challenge for Belarusian media. While newsrooms are struggling with financial difficulties around the world, Belarusian newspapers and internet outlets that touch upon political topics are especially vulnerable. If a non-governmental medium publishing political content is not under the control of a big commercial IT company such as tut.by or onliner.by, it is probably financed by a foreign company or government. This is the case with some of the most popular outlets such as TV Belsat, which is supported by the Polish government, or Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, financed by the United States. Many smaller media outlets do not disclose their sources of income. To be independent from foreign governments and big capital is a much more serious challenge in Belarus than in most other parts of the world.
According to the Freedom House report, Belarus is doing much worse in terms of media economy than Iran and China, although in terms of legal restrictions the situation in Belarus is better. In China, big non-governmental media companies are all dependent on the Communist Party. Similarly, in Belarus, the few commercial media companies also seem to have become increasingly dependent on the state. And such a heightened dependence could easily bring media owners into the same boat as the government when it comes to public discussions regarding media freedom.
Most of us have heard about the “Great Firewall of China” or Russia’s propaganda machine presenting an idealised image of President Putin. However, not many people around the world are interested in media developments in countries like Belarus. Simultaneously, this fair positioning of Belarus along with media freedom’s “great oppressors” (like China and Russia) is important, as it could bring attention to struggling Belarus’ media system, which is controlled by self-censorship and commercial control. It also should bring attention to its independent journalists, who have been persecuted, censored, self-censored, harassed and killed over last 20 years.
Ales Herasimenka is a PhD researcher at the Communication and Media Research Institute of the University of Westminster. For the past ten years he has been working as a journalist for various Belarusian independent media outlets.