Protests in Belarus: Repressions are live now

Protest rally in Brest, 05.03.2017

Within the last month, Belarus has been facing the rise of the protest movement against the so-called ‘parasite’ law. Remarkably, not only Minsk is expressing its outrage; residents of small towns are also taking to the streets, which has not happened since the 90s. Another important feature of the street protests is their being livestreamed.

Minsk, 15 March. Men in black attack a group of young people in a trolley bus: we see them pulling people’s hair, tearing clothes, pushing the youngsters. The attacked chant ‘Let go!’ and hold each other. Thousands of people were watching the video of plainclothes policemen’s brutally detaining the group of anarchists live on social media. In total, 30 people were arrested in Minsk after the authorized demonstration on Constitution Day. In Mahiliou and Hrodna, there were even more violent actions and arrests that night.

Police violence in Mahiliou, March 15 (ENG subtitles)

Earlier that month, three opposition leaders were arrested by a group of policemen without uniform and jailed for 15 days after the protest in Maladzechna. Anatol Liabedzka, Chairman of United Civic Party, managed to livestream on Facebook his being forcibly detained and interrogated at the police station.

More visual evidence of how the authorities are trying to block the protesting movement has been provided by journalists and bloggers armed with smartphones. Due to livestreams people learned about the arrest of Maksim Filipovich shortly before it actually happened. ‘You are talking to the whole world right now, saying that you are policemen, but don’t even want to introduce yourself?’, he asks. Filipovich, a blogger from Homiel, is one of the most prominent voices of the national protest against the tax on ‘social parasites’ – or simply unemployed people.

According to the law, if you do not have a job for more than 183 days per year you ought to pay approximately 180 euros of tax. Belarusian people, exhausted by the crisis and unemployment, found the document humiliating – even those who used to be supporters of president Lukashenka for long.

March 15. Plainclothes police taking people away from bus stop

Minsk, Homel, Brest, Vitsebsk, Hrodna, Pinsk, Maladzechna, Babruysk, Orsha, Rahachou – thousands of protesters took to the streets of big cities, no less than several hundred – in smaller towns. Taken by surprise at the beginning of the protests, the authorities soon returned to the tactics that had been repeatedly applied before. By the time of writing this article, nearly 200 people have been detained over the period of less than three weeks. Most of them faced police abuse, about which Belarus had almost forgotten because of the so-called liberalization.

Comparing to the times of peaceful protests in 2011, documenting brutality, as well as the rallies in general, is easier these days. Now thousands of people stand a chance to watch protests live and see how plainclothes police who refuse to introduce themselves or show their IDs arrest people and bar journalists from performing their duties. There is little doubt that the actions of Belarusian officials and law enforcers have ever been shown in such detail before. Livestreaming equips people with vast opportunities. In one of the streams we see the road police stopping Belsat TV journalists who were tasked to cover a protest rally: “We need to check whether your car is not stolen or whether it was not involved in an accident, but our database is broken”. And ‘fixing’ that mysterious database might take several hours. More journalists and activists faced similar ridiculous situations when the protests were at their peak – and thousands of people were witnessing absurd scenes online.

Protest in Orsha 12.03: Belsat TV journalist arrested by police (ENG video)

Livestreaming not only allows to expose such absurdity, but also to connect distant places on the protesting map. Smaller towns are not so isolated anymore, the localsknow (and if they still don’t they deserve to be told) that the new technology may help to spread their outrage at injustice throughout the entire country.

Why are online broadcasts drawing so much viewers’ attention? Perhaps, the reason is that they are ‘alive’ and authenticthere is no storyline, no time limit, no editing, no profanity filter. The feeling of involvement in what is happening might be deeper. It seems that there is no barrier, no third party between what is happening on the screen and the viewer.

Protest rally in Slonim, 19.03

Surprisingly, some participants use their smartphones to watch streams even if they are present at a rally, as media analyst Paulyuk Bykowski points out. Sometimes it is hard to hear or see what is going on. But these people are already there. At the same time one can ask: does the number of online followers affect protesting activity? In other words, is there any likelihood that thousands of online viewers will join the protests offline? Paulyuk Bykowski doubts that ‘likes’ or ‘views’ can easily be transformed into real-life actions. But the feelings of anger and frustration that social media users experience while watching the streams might induce them to move forward. Though it is only an additional factor in the movement, not the trigger:

“Think of the boiling point. If you add some salt to water, then the boiling process goes a little bit faster”.

Media consultant Laksiej Lavončyk also believes that social media cannot provoke protests if there have been no protest moods in the country. But they can make the protest movement easier to keep up with: knowing what is going on and watching livestreams may help the uncommitted to size up the situation and see how many like-minded people are.

“But in the end the answer to the question ‘to take to the streets or not to take’ is economically motivated,” Lavončyk stresses.

At the same time there is always ‘possibility that actors who wish to discourage protest will also use information available on social media to shut down protests,’ says Joshua Tucker, Professor of Political Science at New York University, who studies social media impact on protests. Shuting down protests and discouraging potential participantsthese are the benefits authorities can achieve by when they give a free hand to filming and broadcasing brutal detentions of protesters. “There is an order to intimidate and scare people, one can intimidate in different ways: they can either beat up, or they can show beatings up”, says Laksiej Lavončyk. Apparently, Belarus police’s violent actions were aimed at not only setting back the most proactive protesters, but also intimidating the rest. And in this context, the more viewers is better.

Protests in Minsk, Hrodna, Mahiliou LIVE 15.03.2017

But apart from the underlying benefit, the general attitude of the Belarusian government towards the free spread of information remains negative. Eight journalists contributing to Belsat TV were detained last weekend, some of them were bullied and even threatened with death. Over 3,000 people have watched the livestream of one of the arrests. And there have already been 100,00 views of the streams of the protest in Minsk, Hrodna, Mahiliou. These numbers cannot but become a bigger concern for the Belarusian authorities, especially ahead of the most important rally of the year – March 25, Freedom Day.

Tania Reut, Belsat

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