Belarus – land of the silenced voices

Sweden and the EU must, in all their contacts with the Belarusian regime, demand the immediate release of Ales and the other political prisoners as a prerequisite for all forms of exchange and cooperation beyond political dialogue, Robert Hårdh, Executive Director at Civil Rights Defenders, writes in an article in Sydsvenskan.

Over a period of 18 years, the dictatorship in Belarus has worked methodically to quash all the people and organisations that examine, question and provide information on how the country is governed. The result is disheartening: the country’s legislative and judicial powers are entirely under the president’s control, as are all the national media. Leading figures in the opposition and the democracy and human rights movement are either in prison or are curtailed in some other way, while their colleagues and families live under constant threats and harassment. It is time for the international community, from individual to civil society and state, to get involved and make a focused effort for a free Belarus.

In December 1994, less than six months after coming to power in the only free and fair elections held in Belarus, the man who has been called Europe’s last dictator, Alexander Lukashenko, began his crusade against the country’s independent and critical voices. Lukashenko censored a corruption report produced by an opposition member of parliament and three state-controlled newspapers published blank pages instead. Lukashenko, who ironically went to the election on a promise to fight corruption and put an end to censorship and persecution of journalists, responded by kicking out the editors of the three newspapers and closing down an independent TV channel. In a television appearance in spring 1995, Lukashenko said that time was up for the country’s “independent mass communication media”.

A large number of state-independent newspapers have been forced to close since then. Those who are left do not have access to the distribution channels on which the state has a monopoly. They cannot print their own editions, either in private or state-owned printing houses, which come under pressure from the authorities. Attempts to circumvent this by engaging foreign printers and finding alternative distribution solutions have been hindered by the authorities, which have seized both trucks and issues. The risk of reprisals means that self-censorship is prevalent.

State television and radio have been under Lukashenko’s direct control since September 1994 and today Belarusians do not, in principle, have access to any electronic national media other than that which is state-owned. The state newspapers, television and radio stations are propaganda tools for the regime and they do not hesitate to defame and ridicule anyone associated with their political opponents. The internet is the only uncensored source of information that can be accessed with relative ease. However, internet use is restricted and the authorities do what they can to block websites and information. This is facilitated by the fact that the sole distributor is state-owned.

Belarusian musicians have also been the victims of censorship since 21 July 2004, the date on which the opposition held a concert. The following day, an informal order was issued to all private and state-owned FM radio stations instructing them not to play the music of one of the bands that took part in the concert. The members of the band Palats were sacked from their jobs and several of the percussion group Drum Ecstacy’s planned performances were cancelled. It is not just musicians who are said to have been blacklisted, but also dissident artists, writers and actors.

When this summer’s Swedish Eurovision winner Loreen performed at a music festival in Vitebsk, she thought it was important to give the silenced a voice. With Civil Rights Defenders’ help, she met Natalya Pinchuk, wife of the imprisoned human rights defender Ales Bialjatski. She also met a colleague of his and several independent journalists. In 2011, in a politically motivated trial, Ales was sentenced to 4 and a half years in prison and had his property confiscated. Viasna, the organisation of which he is Chairman, has been forced to operate underground since it was denied registration in 2003, which means that its employees risk up to two years in prison just for going to work.

Loreen’s meeting with Natalya helps us to draw attention to the situation of Ales and other political prisoners in Belarus. For Natalya and our other Belarusian friends, it is a much appreciated gesture of solidarity and a necessary injection of energy for coping with everyday life. But it does not end with Loreen. The Ice Hockey World Championships take place in Belarus in 2014 – an event that Lukashenko is certain to use to score political points. What are the Swedish and International Ice Hockey Federation and individual players doing to manifest the democratic and human values on which these movements are based, before, during and after the World Championships?

Sweden and the EU must, in all their contacts with the Belarusian regime, demand the immediate release of Ales and the other political prisoners as a prerequisite for all forms of exchange and cooperation beyond political dialogue. But as you read this, remember that you also have a responsibility. In your role as voter, consumer, music enthusiast, sports fan and fellow human being, you have the power to influence and support our politicians, organisations, artists and sports stars and companies. The silenced need all the voices they can get.

Robert Hårdh
Executive Director, Civil Rights Defenders

Categories: Opinion.
Regions: Belarus.