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Belarus: Authorities Launch Further Crackdown On Independent Media, NGOs

  • Jeremy Bransten

Another crackdown by the authorities against nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and independent media is under way in Belarus. Some commentators see this as the start of a campaign by President Alyaksandr Lukashenka to change the constitution to allow him to serve for a third term in office.

Prague, 2 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- In Belarus these days, a misplaced quotation mark can cost a lot, as Tatsiana Protska found out last month.

It all began two weeks ago, as Protska, head of the Belarusian Helsinki Committee, told RFE/RL. Protska received a phone call from the Belarusian tax authorities. "Recall your staff from vacation and gather all your internal records," she was told. A one-month audit of her human rights NGO was set to start.

The next day, she said, inspectors from the tax department moved into the Helsinki Committee's Minsk bureau. Others fanned out to the NGO's 12 regional offices around the country. They asked to see every document. Financially, the committee's books appeared to be in order. But there was a problem with the NGO's letterhead, the chief inspector said, as Protska explained: "On our letterhead, we have written: Republican Civic Organization -- Belarusian Helsinki Committee. And the Belarusian Helsinki Committee part should have been put in quotation marks. And we didn't. We just had it written in capital letters, with no quotation marks. And because of this, we received a warning. After three such warnings, an organization can be shut down."

For those outside Belarus, such a story might sound absurd, Kafkaesque. But Protska and her colleagues say there is nothing funny about it. The government of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka appears to have launched another campaign to silence civil society. Amid a general atmosphere of political apathy and increasing economic hardship, the country's remaining handful of independent newspapers and NGOs are bearing the brunt of this latest attack. Protska said she personally knows of 20 other NGOs that are currently undergoing similar snap inspections by the authorities.

Last month, addressing a meeting of government officials, Lukashenka called for the introduction and promulgation of what he termed an official "ideology." Comparing a state's ideology to a human being's immune system, Lukashenka said the inculcation of a state-controlled ideology into the country's citizens is essential to protect Belarus's people from any possible "infection."

Lukashenka ordered his officials to come up with effective structures to disseminate this new form of education to workplaces. Starting in 2004, university students will be required to take a new subject: "The Basis of Belarusian Ideology."

If this strikes you as a throwback to Soviet times, you are not alone. Zhanna Litvina, head of the Belarusian Union of Journalists, told RFE/RL she sometimes feels as if she is living in a time warp. Over the past two years, half of the country's independent media outlets have been shut down. Even Russian television and radio broadcasts, heavily watched due to their more balanced news coverage and better entertainment features, are having their local air time cut.

"It would have been hard for me to imagine, say eight years ago, that this propaganda machine could be resuscitated to such a degree and that the methods used in communist times could be so easily taken up again. Belarus is an example of how easily this can be done, and it is dangerous," Litvina said.

In an attempt to draw attention to their plight, Litvina said Belarus's remaining independent journalists will stage a walkout later this month. "It is going to be a 'day of closed newspapers.' We are going to have it on 19 September, the International Day of Solidarity With Journalists. [We want to] stick together, to once again show that you can shut down a newspaper, you can shut down a radio station, but journalists cannot be stripped of their profession," she said.

The fact that Lukashenka keeps the country's citizens on a tight leash has been documented for years. But what lies behind his latest moves? Many had forecast that after winning a second five-year term in office in 2001, Lukashenka would ease tight controls on civil society.

Litvina believes that Lukashenka, now midway through his second term, is laying the groundwork for eliminating a constitutional ban on seeking a third mandate. "It means that the president is very keen on controlling public opinion, to control the consciousness of the 10 million citizens of this country," she said. "There must be no dissent because at some key upcoming point, perhaps a referendum or a new presidential campaign, citizens will have to be obedient. And a person cannot make an informed choice when he or she is deprived of information."

Tatsiana Protska, at the Belarusian Helsinki Committee, said the worsening economic situation is driving the government to reinforce censorship while making ordinary citizens -- especially outside Minsk -- more reluctant than ever to get involved in politics. "Everyone is afraid of losing their job," she said. "There is no money in the budget and no new jobs. And private businesses are disappearing, just disappearing. There simply aren't any."

Protska also believes political motivation is behind the government's new campaign of repression. And she believes Lukashenka could easily win a carefully worded referendum on abolishing presidential term limits. "If there's a referendum, any number of questions can be included," she said. "I don't think there will be a question specifically about allowing a third term. I think it will be easy for him, because of the public apathy and relatively stable situation, to put in a question on eliminating the article in the constitution [that limits the president's terms in office]."

Protska said the opposition, split among 18 political parties, remains little threat to Lukashenka -- even if his approval ratings, according to the latest survey by the Independent Institute for Socioeconomic and Political Studies, have dropped. "The problem is not his approval rating. The problem is that there isn't anyone with a better rating. Even if he gets just 10 percent, it will be enough," she said.

In line with reinforcing his image as his country's sole ruler, Lukashenka recently decreed a monopoly on usage of the title "president." According to the decree, everyone else currently using the title in Belarus -- be they the president of the local beekeeping society or president of a company -- will have to re-title their job description.

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