More trials and political prisoners. More labelling of ‘extremists’, more repentance videos. Lukashenka has promised the ‘strictest clean-up’ of ‘traitors’ and authorities follow suit against leading voices. New criminal cases punishing the freedom of speech and expression, more ‘repentance’ videos, Journalists, bloggers at largest independent media outlet hit with long prison sentences, imprisoned blogger attempts suicide, calls for ‘mind policing’ and tougher action. On 25 March, what a strange way for Belarusians to celebrate the 105th anniversary of the 1918 proclamation of the independence of the free Belarusian People’s Republic…
Source — EUvsDiSiNFO — March 25, 2023 —
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On 25 March, Belarusians celebrate the 105th anniversary of the 1918 proclamation of the independence of the free Belarusian People’s Republic. This day is an occasion to reflect on the realities in today’s Belarus, especially the situation for citizens, their freedoms and rights. Unfortunately, there is little to celebrate.
On EUvsDisinfo, we have examined key developments regarding freedom of speech, state control of the information landscape, and increasing repression. See recent overviews about the jailed Nobel Peace Prize laureate Ales Bialiatski here, about the Day of Solidarity with Political Prisoners on 27 November here, and about how independent media and activists keep risking everything here. Brave individual Belarusians, those in NGOs, and those in the few remaining independent media outlets continue to document facts.
As we mark 25 March, the state administrative system, the courts, and the police are fully engaged in inducing fear across society and silencing opposing voices. Well-known instruments such as being labelled ‘extremist’, put under trial, arrested, and thrown in prison are used on a greater scale against more people. The tone and language of regime media has become tougher. Police brutality occurs openly.
‘Clean-up the traitors’
Following a 26 February attack on a Russian air force plane at a Belarus military airfield, Lukashenka broke an official week-long silence when he acknowledged the attack on 7 March and announced that the perpetrators had been caught. He promised the ‘strictest clean-up’ of ‘potential traitors’.
Lukashenka has increased the level of repression in Belarus during recent years – see here – and there has been a sinister mutual inspiration between him and Russian authorities. The language of ‘cleaning up the traitors’ has a parallel with the trend Putin has unleashed in Russia when he issues calls to ‘clean society of non-patriots’ or ‘spit them out like flies’ in key speeches.
Calls for ‘mind policing’ and tougher action
Generally, rhetoric in state-controlled media became harsher following the incident with the Russian military plane. Also on 7 March, key propagandist Liudmila Hladkaya, who is on the EU sanctions list, published an op-ed for the presidential administration newspaper Belarus Segodnya (Belarus Today) full of obscenities and insults directed mostly at Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
The practice of propagandists discussing on state TV how to persecute people for their political views appears designed to induce fear. The STV TV channel aired a ‘talk-show’ where prominent state propagandist Andrey Mukovozchik called for limiting of rights of people with pro-democracy views. He called for inspecting personal accounts on social media, particularly Facebook, for pro-democracy content. See a summary of the STV discussion made by the Zerkalo media outlet here.
Independent media observers suggest that since 7 March, dozens if not hundreds of people have been arrested throughout the country. See the website of the Viasna Human Rights Center for more details about political prisoners and detainees.
Journalists, bloggers at largest independent media outlet hit with long prison sentences
Editor-in-Chief Maryna Zolatava and Media Director Media Lyudmila Chekina, both of the largest independent Belarusian media outlet Tut.by, were each condemned to 12 years in prison on 17 March. They were sentenced in a politically motivated trial held behind closed doors for allegedly evading taxes, inciting hostility, and calling for actions detrimental to national security. Tut.by used to reach some 63% of internet users in Belarus according to Gemius Data.
Prior to the court’s verdict, Belarus state TV channel 1 broadcast a 1.5-hour-long propaganda film discrediting Tut.by and its team. Commentators accused Tut.by media workers of responsibility for the 2020-2021 mass protests following the rigged presidential elections. They were also blamed for earlier cases of public discontent, although Tut.by only covered the events in accordance with normal journalistic standards. In addition, blogger Dzmitry Harbunou was sentenced to 1.5 years in prison for ‘insulting Lukashenka and a representative of the authorities’.
Imprisoned blogger attempts suicide
According to human rights defenders, blogger Ihar Losik recently tried to commit suicide in prison by cutting his arms and neck. Losik was sentenced to 15 years in prison in a politically motivated trial held behind closed doors. Later, his wife Darya was also imprisoned for two years. We have followed Ihar Losik’s case here.
New criminal cases punishing the freedom of speech and expression
70-year-old Vasily Dziemidovich, sentenced to 6.5 years in prison for allegedly insulting Lukashenka and other officials and known as the ‘oldest Belarusian terrorist’, will soon face his third trial. This time he is blamed for ‘insulting a representative of the authorities’.
More ‘repentance’ videos
A particularly perverse and rising trend since Lukashenka’s call on 7 March for a ‘clean-up’ is ‘repentance videos’ where humiliating recordings are made of people apologising for their allegedly unlawful activities, statements, or just ‘likes’ on social media. On 17 March, the Ministry of Interior announced continuing ‘comprehensive work with the persons who support anti-state views’.
Lately, regime-controlled media sources have published dozens of new ‘repentance videos’ and videos of brutal detentions of Belarusians. Until recently, state-controlled Telegram channels without an official relationship to the regime mostly posted such content, but now the accounts of key state outlets such as Belarus Segodnya and Belta are involved.
Examples from last week illustrate this trend:
- 18-year-old Arciom Biarozkin, already detained by the KGB, was filmed speaking about posting pro-Ukraine content on social media.
- The father of Belarusian soldier Dzianis Urbanovich fighting for Ukraine was filmed calling for his son to come back to Belarus and spend 10 years in prison.
- Well-known education expert Yauheni Liviant, who was earlier arrested along with his family members on politically motivated charges, was ‘interviewed’ on the state ONT TV channel where he deplored his participation in the August 2020 peaceful protests and his consent to become part of the pro-democracy expert council.
Here on EUvsDisinfo, we will not link to images or videos of these cruel and probably forced confessions. Readers can imagine what it looks like when a person is put under great duress and forced to recite self-denigrating fabrications, likely well aware this testimony will soon hit the internet and be promoted by state propagandists. The ice-cold feeling is one of show trials and USSR-style repression. The difference is that today, repression happens not in a dusty paper-print article in the communist ‘Pravda’ but online, aggravated with the full force and reach of the internet.
Arrests and detentions of former workers for state media
Recent cases of detentions of former state media workers were reported over the past week. Dzmitry Bayarovich, who used to work for the STV TV channel until quitting in 2021, was detained together with his wife. Volha Hladkaya, a former media manager at the Belarus 2 TV channel who quit in September 2020, was arrested and is facing criminal charges for ‘protesting’. Andrei Pinchuk, a producer at the Belarus 1 TV channel, was fired after a brief detention.
The Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ): now an ‘extremist formation’
On 28 February 2023, the Belarus KGB listed the BAJ as well as nine media managers linked to it as an ‘extremist formation’. The regional newspaper Brestskaya Gazeta (‘Brest Newspaper’) has also received the same label. Furthermore, a dozen social media accounts on VKontakte, Twitter, Odnoklassniki, Facebook, and Telegram have been labelled ‘extremist’.
This is a serious, repressive step as it will likely discourage people who are targeted by the authorities from seeking help and advice from BAJ. The organisation becomes toxic since being ‘extremist’ means that other people can face criminal prosecution if interacting with an ‘extremist’ group or even posting social media comments, as is already happening. See our account here.
On 15 March, the editorial office of the Info-Kuryer newspaper was searched and three editorial team workers were detained. This is literally the last independent regional newspaper in Belarus which has continued to release printed material. On the same day, the apartment of Aliaksandr Mantsevich, the editor-in-chief of the Regionalnaya Gazeta (‘The Regional Newspaper’) was searched. Its website was added to the list of ‘extremist’ sources in 2022 but the outlet continued to publish content on social media.
The website of the Brest regional office of the Viasna Human Rights Center and the Telegram channel of the Vitebsk regional office of Viasna have also been labelled as ‘extremist.’
A dozen editions of the historical journals Nasha Historyya (‘Our History’) and Arche, dedicated to scientific and popular publications about Belarusian history, have been added to the ‘extremist’ list. The official justification for inclusion on the list cites their critical review of the Soviet period. Again, this move has a parallel in Russia, where questioning the role of the Soviet Army and its deeds (‘smearing the reputation’) has been criminalised.
Putin mirroring Lukashenka and vice versa
Like the above-described mutual inspiration concerning language against the opposition, there is a certain parallel when Russian and Belarusian authorities label people or organisations as ‘extremists’ or ‘undesired’. Even if the terms have different legal implications, both have severe consequences for those affected. A designation casts them into a kind of ‘open prison’, an outcast whom everybody should avoid because interacting with them can be criminal. See the account here.
Against this dark background of recent developments, the perseverance and bravery of the people of Belarus is remarkable. Looking forward, there is every reason to mark Dzen Voli, or Belarus Freedom Day.