Punishing Citizen Journalism: A New Trend in Belarus?

Ruslan Mirzoeu

On 12 August 2013 Ruslan Mirzoeu, an ordinary worker from Minsk was arrested for making a short provocative movie, ridiculing the life of socially deprived people. A couple of other cases of pressuring individuals for producing videos with social criticism have followed since then.

The Belarusian government resisted attempts to undermine its "social stability" myth, but these incidents will likely not lead to a new wave of harsher authoritarianism. The current regime will not punish people for simply any kind of citizen journalism and internet-activism.

Revealing an Unpleasant Reality

Ruslan Mirzoeu, an ex-drug addict, serving his term of restrained freedom (akin to house arrest) for theft, has become famous among Belarusian Internet users after he shot a series of short movies about ordinary working days at his machine-building plant.

These movies were full of cursing, workers’ complaints, pictures of horrible working conditions and general gloomy atmosphere. However, funny comments and interviews with workers made these videos rather entertaining.

The management of Ruslan’s plant made him leave his job under threat of "severe measures" to be taken against me if he continued with his videos. This did not stop Ruslan.  He shot another movie about his own neighbourhood Kurasoushchyna, showing the ugly side of urban life: street fights, people drinking, taking drugs etc. As Ruslan later confessed, he faked some of the stories.

This time the police paid attention to his work. With state TV cameras in the courtroom, Ruslan was sentenced to seven days of administrative arrest for hooliganism (disorderly conduct), charges that were presented as if he himself cursed in public places and disturbed the passers-by.

The state TV newscasters covering the trial said something unimaginable in such a democratic state: "The prosecutors do not conceal that the true reason of his arrest is not public cursing: "One cannot deserve to have such popularity by manipulating social problems" – said Pavel Radionov, the prosecutor.

In other words, the state representative openly admitted to arresting a man for publicly showing a bad image of the Belarusian society.

An Alarming Trend

This story could have been explained as the casual excess and abuse of power of some second-rate official, which certainly somtimes happens in Belarus (for instance – prohibition of Press Photo album annual contest for extremism). But it fell in line with several other recent cases of pressure on people who also shot amateur videos that are unpleasant for the state.

On 6 August blogger and social activist from Svyatlahorsk, a district centre in the Homel region, Henadz’ Zhulega shot a luxurious cottage which belongs to the Head of a district on video, commenting on how rich this official was, while his town continues to stagnate. On 17 August, after the video was put online, policemen searched the activist’s home, confiscated his computer and warned him of a possible charge for defamation that could be brought against him.

A physician from Vitebsk (a regional centre in the north of Belarus), Ihar Pasnou, has recorded a number of public video addresses to the Vitebsk region’s governor. He harshly criticised local hospitals’ management and health care officials, in particular, for misspending funds.

In December 2012 Dr Pasnou lost his job but continued recording his video messages. On 16 August 2013 he informed journalists that he was put to a mental hospital after being threatened to be forced to go there. He refused be treated. On 19 August the doctors at the mental hospital took away his cell phone.

However different the described cases may seem, they indicate a relatively new trend in Belarusian politics: authorities are beginning to approach internet activism, blogging and social criticism by means of citizen journalism as a legitimate target for suppression.

A number of the provisions in the legislation enable such persecution. In addition to the previously mentioned hooliganism and defamation offences, often used by authoritarian governments for repressions, the Belarusian Criminal Code contains specific clauses for such cases.

Articles 369 and 369-1 ("An Insult of the Authority" and "Discrediting the Republic of Belarus") remain two of the most criticised norms of the Criminal Code. Although the second clause requires "reporting false data about political, economic <…> situation in the Republic of Belarus or its citizens’ legal status to the foreign or international organisation", Belarusian courts and police interpret the law broadly when it concerns politics.

For instance, in 2011 the court in the town of Mazyr' fined local activist Mihail Karatkevich for announcing a mass rally on his social network account, having accused him of "unlawfully organising a massive public event". In 2012 two women from Minsk had to pay large fines for a photosession with teddy-bears in the street (recalling the teddy-bear airdrop). The court accused them of "unlawful picketing".

Breaking the Sacred Myth and Its Perspectives

These series of these cases provoked a discussion among Belarusian expert community. Blogger and journalist Dmitry Galko called this trend "citizen journalism". He explained its growing influence by the decline of traditional media: state propaganda can only create rosy pictures of reality, while independent publications, suppressed by the  government, lack the time and resources to properly cover the lives of real people. 

Two media experts, Aleksander Klaskouski and Pauliuk Bykouski, doubted the prospects of citizen journalism and criticised it for its lack of professionalism and ignoring media ethics: "How would you treat "citizen" dentistry or "citizen" surgery", – they argue. Klaskouski says, in the West so-called "citizen journalism" has a very narrow field of application: emergency situations, military actions, public rallies etc. – situations which traditional media sometimes cannot promptly cover.

Whatever it is called, this new trend irritates the Belarusian authorities. Dmitry Galko put it eloquently: "The authorities want to maintain their monopoly on producing the picture of reality".

In all of the three stories described here, ordinary apolitical people tried to show real life in Belarus, with all of its problems and various miseries. The Belarusian government, who bases its legitimacy on "stability and prosperity" myth, cannot let anyone undermine it.

The future of Belarusian citizen journalism and other forms of civil activity on the internet depends on how the government will respond to the current series of such cases described in the article. Cracking down on several activists of this kind in a short time period will send a clear signal to bureaucracy all over the country.

If the given response is rigid, it will create a precedent. Belarusian officials, when facing such activism again will prefer to act tough with such issues because nobody will punish them for being too firm, but any sign of being soft can be seen as risky.

However, in reality, a truly tough response seems unlikely to follow. For now the internet has remained the only area where people can criticise the regime, usually without any consequences. Punishment on a regular basis for simply ridiculing the pictures of peoples' ordinary lives or any internet-criticism will elevate the Belarusian regime to a new level of authoritarianism. A government in the centre of Europe, which occasionally needs to improve its relations with the West, cannot afford to act this way. 

On the other hand, potential citizen journalists will now think twice before making videos on socially sensitive issues. Ruslan Mirzoeu’s case and a couple of other similiar stories can become a serious deterrent for them.

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