Intimidation instead of law: How Belarusian authorities criminalize access to truth

The Ministry of Internal Affairs recognized groups of citizens united by Belsat’s Internet resources as an “extremist formation”. found out what it means and how access to alternative sources of information was criminalized in the totalitarian regimes of the past.

Illustrative photo. Belsat TV studio in Warsaw, Poland. Photo: Belsat

According to the Ministry of Internal Affairs, “extremist groups” are now considered to be groups of citizens united through Belsat’s website, YouTube channels, accounts in Telegram, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, VK and Odnoklassniki.

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“It is impossible to recognize millions of Belarusians as extremists”

Alyaksei Dzikavitski, vice-director of Belsat TV channel, states that the authorities “are looking for all possible measures to clear the information field, hoping in vain to deprive Belarusians of free information.”

“Naturally, it is impossible to recognize as extremists millions of Belarusians who watch or read us on social networks. This is the same as recognizing the whole nation as extremists, as the vast majority of Belarusians trust independent media, including Belsat. I will add that these resolutions will not stop Belsat, we will continue to work,” he said.

Belarus authorities declare Belsat ‘extremist formation’

BAJ Deputy Chairman Barys Haretski noted that this is the first case when the media in Belarus is recognized as an “extremist formation”, so it is still difficult to say what consequences such a decision will have.

“But obviously this is done, first, to intimidate people who are subscribed to the Telegram, visit the website, or share messages. And, secondly, it frees the hands of law enforcement officers in repressions against those who cooperate with Belsat. It is clear that Belsat is a big TV channel, there are a lot of journalists, producers, and just people who send information or share some news. Now the authorities can hypothetically persecute these people for participating in the “extremist formation”.

Illustrative photo. March of Peace and Independence. Minsk, Belarus. August 30, 2020. Photo: Vot Tak TV / Belsat

On the other hand, there has been an absolute legal arbitrariness in Belarus lately, and people are brought to justice for something every day even without these innovations,” Barys Haretski said.

How to arrest a million

It is still difficult to say how the secret services will use this decision. Authorities threaten that the members of “extremist groups” will be persecuted under Article 361-1 of the Criminal Code (“Creating or participating in an extremist group”). But who will be considered a participant is still unclear. The security forces made contradictory statements in this regard.

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On the one hand, Vyachaslau Arlouski, a representative of GUBAZiK (The Main Directorate for Combating Organized Crime and Corruption of the MIA of the Republic of Belarus –, previously noted that people who just read “extremist” channels have nothing to fear. Allegedly, only those who participate in the promotion of such a resource will be prosecuted (for example, providing information to such channels, making reposts, etc.). On the other hand, Arlouski stated that subscribing to such resources is “already an element of participation in promotion,” so formally any subscriber can become a participant in criminal prosecution. He said that the best solution would be to unsubscribe from such channels. But in another of his speeches, he said that unsubscribing from the channel will not save anyone, because “there is an electronic trace everywhere.” “We’ll get to everyone,” Arlouski threatened.

But the promise to “get to everyone” looks unrealistic. De facto, it follows from the decision of the Ministry of Internal Affairs that the Belsat audience in all social networks and on all platforms is recognized as “extremist formations”. That is, we are talking about hundreds and hundreds of thousands of Belarusians (only the YouTube channel “BELSAT NEWS” has 459 thousand subscribers). In addition to Belsat, ten other Telegram channels and chats with hundreds of thousands of subscribers have been recognized as “extremist groups.” It is simply impossible to repress so many people in a state with a population of 9.4 million.

Illustrative photo. March of Peace and Independence. Minsk, Belarus. August 30, 2020. Photo: Alisa Hanchar / Belsat

“It is impossible to imprison so many people, it is impossible physically, organizationally or ideologically. Therefore, it remains only to scare people to unsubscribe from channels, to be afraid to communicate with each other. And the level of repressions does not depend on what is written in the law, the level of repressions depends on how actively Belarusians resist it and how the society reacts to it,” Mikhail Kiryliuk, NAU (People’s Anti-Crisis Administration – and Coordination Council representative in legal matters, said earlier in an interview with Belsat.

It is likely that in fact it is an attempt by the authorities to establish full control over the media space and the opinions of citizens. The secret services want to achieve this goal by threatening to criminalize access to alternative sources of information. Similar goals were set by all totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century. However, even they failed to completely stop the spread of information.

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“Enemy voices” in the USSR

In the USSR, independent media have been outlawed since the beginning of the state’s existence. In Stalin’s time people who had emigrant periodicals or other banned literature (including books by undesirable writers and poets) were persecuted under Art. 58 p. 10 of the Criminal Code: “anti-Soviet propaganda or agitation.”

Having “anti-Soviet” printed materials could be grounds for persecution in the late Soviet era. At the same time, a person could be tried for keeping books whose “anti-Soviet” character was determined post factum (this also happens in today’s Belarus). The decision to consider literature “anti-Soviet” was generally made arbitrarily and did not take into account similar decisions in other cases. For example, there is a case when an Odessa librarian was tried for “distributing” Anna Akhmatova‘s “Requiem”, and the same book, found during a search at a Moscow astrophysicist’s, did not raise questions among the KGB.

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After the Second World War, the struggle against freedom of speech in the USSR was complicated by the fact that radio stations in Western countries began broadcasting in Russian (Radio Liberty, Voice of America, the BBC, Deutsche Welle, etc.). and then in the languages ​​of some other peoples of the USSR. Soviet propagandists called these radio stations “enemy voices.”

Illustrative photo. An action of solidarity with detained journalists Nadzeya Kalinina, Mikita Nedaverkau, Andrey Shauluha, Maryia Elyashevich, Alyaksei Sudnikau and Svyataslau Zorki. Minsk, Belarus. September 3, 2020. Photo: Alisa Hanchar / Belsat

Foreign radio stations were jammed, so it was difficult to catch “enemy voices” in the USSR. In addition, listening to the Western media was banned. In the materials of politically motivated criminal cases of that time one can find such formulations: “listened to programs, regularly expressed dissatisfaction with the low standard of living, talked about the lack of food in stores” or “listened and retold programs to colleagues” (Soviet analogue of modern repost on social networks).

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But despite all this, control over access to alternative information could not be achieved even in the USSR: millions of people still listened to foreign radio stations. The “jammers” could not evenly cover the entire territory of the country: according to the documents of the Politburo, radio protection was effective only on 30% of the territory of the USSR. As for the criminal prosecution, it was difficult to control the private listening of “enemy voices”, because it first had to be proved. Naturally, Soviet citizens tried not to listen to Western radio stations together with those they did not trust and who could report on them, and did not advertise such things in principle. For the vast majority of people, listening to “enemy voices” had no consequences.

Underground journalists in the GDR

Similar norms criminalizing cooperation with the media of capitalist countries and access to alternative sources of information existed in other communist countries of Eastern Europe. For example, in the GDR there were a number of criminal articles, under which any relationship with foreign media could be summed up if desired. One could be prosecuted for “anti-state propaganda” and “abusing the media to spread bourgeois ideology,” storing and distributing Western newspapers and magazines, transmitting information to the Western media about the state of affairs in the GDR, and “spreading slanderous fabrications.”

Naturally, in such conditions, the citizens of the GDR did not have the opportunity to openly cooperate with foreign media. But such people were still there. The most famous underground journalists of the GDR are Aram Radomski and Siegbert Schefke, who in the 1980s unofficially collaborated with German television. They collected information and took pictures where accredited foreign correspondents, who were under the constant control of the Stasi, simply did not have access.

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The finest hour of Schefke and Radomski was working on a mass protest demonstration in Leipzig in October 1989. Exclusive footage of the demonstration was taken from the tower of the Reformed Church, where they were let by a pastor who sympathized with the dissidents. Footage of the Leipzig protests flew around the world, they became the strongest source of motivation for the revolution in the GDR and a powerful factor in discrediting the communist regime. It is symbolic that our colleagues Katsyaryna Andreyeva and Darya Chultsova received the Leipzig Prize for Media Freedom this year, which was founded in Germany in honour of the events of 1989.