Covering protests: a new epoch for the Belarusian media
On 25 March, a record number of Internet users visited the website of the independent Belarusian newspaper Nasha Niva. 109,000 Internet users read articles describing the protests against the social parasite law. In Belarus, this is nothing to sneeze at.
The state media either ignored the March protests or covered them in a negative light. Thus, the independent media became the only source of information for the public about the countrywide demonstrations against the social parasite decree.
Despite 120 cases of detention or arrest of journalists between 10 and 30 March, the independent media managed to cover the protests with great degree of professionalism. Due to the arrest of oppositional leaders in smaller cities, reporters found themselves in the spotlight.
Unorganised protesters gathered around journalists to express their discontent with the government and hundreds thousand Belarusians followed online streams of people meeting to criticise the economic policy of the authorities on camera.
Due to the rapid developments in media technology, Lukashenka’s propaganda machine can no longer keep up with real journalists.
How free is the press in Belarus?
Unlike in many authoritarian states, in Belarus the public has free access to local and foreign news portals. Nevertheless, human rights organisations are highly critical of Belarus when it comes to freedom of press issues.
The country traditionally occupies the lowest rungs of media freedom indices. In 2016, the World Press Freedom Index, published by Reporters without Borders, assigned Belarus 157th place out of 180 countries. According to Freedom House, Belarus occupies the 194th position. Only Crimea, Eritrea, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and North Korea earned a worse ranking.
Indeed, the state controls all TV and Radio stations in the country and has a monopoly on print media distribution. Nevertheless, independent media has found much more success on the Internet. The most popular private news portal, TUT.by, is accessed by 46.42 % of Internet users in the country. According Google Analytics, in March 2017 the TUT.by news service attracted almost 6 million unique users.
According to a Belarusian rating of web-pages, Akavita.by, the most popular state news portal in the country was the official news-agency Belta.by. Approximately 470,000 users visit the page each month.
Media experts within the country agree that the media situation is not as drastic as international ratings claim. According to human rights organisations, no journalists are currently under arrest. The last killing of a journalist occurred 13 years ago in 2004. According to Belarus Association of Journalists chair Andrei Bastunets, the situation in Belarus is much better than in Azerbaijan or Syria, which rank above Belarus in many indices.
The highly restrictive nature of media legislation is the main reason for such low ratings. Several influential Belarusian media outlets, such as satellite TV channels Belsat and Euroradio, are based in Poland. To hinder their work, authorities introduced a law prohibiting journalists from working with foreign media companies without government accreditation.
This legislative norm is often used to target freelancers working for these stations or other 'foreign' media organisations forced to work without Belarusian accreditation. As a result, fines for freelance journalists have become a common practise. The law also allows the Ministry of Information to block websites containing articles harmful to the interests of the state. Websites can even be blocked because of unsavoury comments under articles.
Protests against the parasite law and the following crackdown on 25 March have politicised Belarusian society. Naturally, this provoked a huge amount of interest on behalf of the independent media. The last time non-state media enjoyed such wide popularity was during the Silent Protests of 2011. While state TV stations broadcast propagandist programmes comparing the demonstrations to Nazi riots, independent journalists streamed online coverage from the ground.
However, the scale of repression of journalists in 2017 was much larger than in 2011. Between 10 and 30 March, 120 journalists were detained, arrested, or fined. Nevertheless, after 25 March, some media analysts started to talk about a new era of journalism in Belarus. Indeed, the media was able to not only cover protests, but also mobilise protesters.
Due to the absence of oppositional leaders at the demonstrations in small cities such as Pinsk, Slonim, or Rahachou, people gathered around journalists and openly criticised the government on camera. Somewhere between 20,000 to 350,000 people followed Radio Liberty and Belsat TV live-streams of the protests all over the country. Some journalists even managed to broadcast their own arrests and continued live-streams from inside police stations.
Commenting on the work of the media on 25 March, editor-in-chief of Euroradio Viktar Malisheuski admitted that this was the first time that journalists managed to be so brazen. They worked in the same way that journalists in democratic countries do. Thus, media consumers received much higher-quality material than the authorities expected.
The state media responds
The professionalism of the independent media was especially notable when compared with the state media. On 25 March, Internet users actively discussed developments on the website of the largest state-controlled Belarusian newspaper, Belarus Today. On a day when at least 700 protesters were detained in the centre of Minsk, the headline of the publication read '25 March. Everything is calm in Minsk'. The reaction of the public led to the post being deleted on 27 March.
In online broadcasts for state TV, the authorities provided low quality propaganda movies. A recent documentary, broadcast on 12 April, linked activists suspected of inciting riots to ISIS and Nazi groups. Internet users were quick to respond with ironic comments and jokes comparing the documentary to science fiction.
Only a fraction of the public retains an interest in politics during lulls in repression Read more
Experts agree that unlike state media, independent journalists showed a high level of professionalism. Nevertheless, it is questionable whether the free media really expanded its audience. After crackdowns on protests come to an end, interest towards politics usually declines.
Only a fraction of the public retains an interest in politics during lulls in repression, and this group remains the primary target audience of the non-state media. Just as in 2011, interest towards independent media is expected to fall for this reason.
Nevertheless, the work of journalists this time around is evidence that the techniques of protest coverage have forever changed. New technology allowed the public to watch the demonstrations and witness police brutality online in real time. This gives the journalistic community immense power. The arrests, fines, and police attacks on the offices of Belsat TV in Minsk which occurred on 31 March are proof that the authorities are well aware of this danger.
Hazing in the Belarusian army
On 31 March, Arciom Basciuk, a soldier in the Belarusian army, committed suicide because of hazing. Less than a year earlier, another soldier shot himself during a military exercise for the same reason. Psychological pressure and the hierarchical structure of the Belarusian military means that runaways are commonplace, as are complaints, lawsuits, and sometimes even suicides.
If official statistics are to be believed, fewer and fewer soldiers have been filing complaints about obligatory military duty since 1994. However, human rights activists claim that this data has been falsified, and hazing remains an important issue in their campaigns. Compulsory military duty has become an instrument of the state to neutralise political activists. In order to combat hazing, the state must first admit there is a problem and make concerted efforts to monitor and reform the military system.
The Tradition of Hazing
Hazing, meaning a violation of soldiers' rights by other soldiers, is a widespread phenomenon in many Post-Soviet militaries. Although military duty is supposed to be served on equal terms for every soldier, hierarchies within its internal structure persist. These hierarchies comprise three levels: ‘dziady’ (grandpas), ‘čarpaki'’ (dippers), and 'slany' (elephants). The longer a soldier serves, the further he rises in the system, eventually becoming a ‘dzied’ (grandpa).
In Belarus, hazing remains pervasive. According to an interview with a soldier in the independent newspaper Nasha Niva in early April, those lower down in the hierarchy are expected to serve 'their superiors' by buying them food or drinks. Additionally, rookies have few rights when it comes to services such as mobile calls. Reportedly, those higher up receive benefits such as longer travels home from the army administration, which keeps silent about the rampant inequality.
Statistics suggest that hazing has become less of a problem since 1994: in 2014 the Ministry of Defence concluded that hazing had diminished from 11 cases per 1,000 soldiers in 1994 to 1.6 in 2014. Nevertheless, official statistics consistently ignore instances of suicide and runaways, only mentioning occasional violations of army statutes, reports Idea. According to human rights centre Viasna, hazing remains the most serious problem in the Belarusian army.
Hazing in Belarusian Army
Hazing often has severe repercussions on soldiers' mental and physical health. One example is that of Andrei Andryjanau, who was completely healthy when he started his military service in 2015. However, after three months, doctors diagnosed him with cancer and Andryjanau died several months later. His mother insists that her son's death was caused by hazing.
In order to avoid hazing, many soldiers resort to running away from military facilities illegally. One such case occurred in February of this year, when two friends from Brest Region left their post without permission. After hiding from the administration, they finally arrived home, claiming they were forced to escape because of violence and money extortion by ‘dziady’. Similar instances are reported every year.
The most serious hazing practises can lead to death. In 2008, one Valery Shkuta began his military service near the town of Zaslaul; less than a year later he was beaten to death. The army administration, however, initially called it ‘an accident’. Nevertheless, in December 2009, eight former soldiers received prison sentences for the lethal beating of the young man. The investigation revealed that Shkuta was beaten because he refused to bring tools to soldiers higher up on the pecking order.
Suicides because of hazing happen rarely but are nonetheless systematic. Artsiom Bastsiuk bid his final farewell to his parents on 30 March and committed a suicide a day later. According to his parents, the hazing he experienced while serving in Barysau had involved severe psychological pressure and blackmail. Before his suicide, Bastsiuk informed his parents that higher-ups pushed rookies to buy or bring them food and do hundreds of push-ups a night. The Ministry of Defence refuses to comment on the instance, and the investigative committee has failed to initiate a case.
Is There a Way to Stop Hazing?
Some soldiers attempt to combat hazing by filing lawsuits. The best known example of this was in 2013, when 20-year old Akim Benesh accused a fellow soldier of assault. Although the case started out as a ‘fight against hazing’, it ended with a criminal case against Benesh himself. The court eventually decided to drop the case, and the investigative committee stopped its investigating and did not attempt to punish the offender.
Human rights defenders campaign actively against hazing and compulsory military duty. In 2016, the human-rights centre Viasna initiated a campaign in Homiel called ‘Stop arbitrariness in the army – protest against hazing!’. The campaign's messages mainly related to the authorities' turning a blind eye to hazing. Sadly, the campaign activists were unable to effect much change as they could not persuade the government to face facts.
The army has also become a political instrument to prevent activism. In 2012, a Swedish advertising company dropped teddy bears on Belarusian territory from an airplane with slogans demanding greater freedom of speech in Belarus. Later, Belarusian photographer and activist Anton Suryapin published photos of the incident. The KGB detained him and searched his apartment.
After his release ten days later, Suryapin was conscripted in the army. Many political activists continue to receive letters of conscription and lose access to political or civic life. The authorities employed a similar strategy when they conscripted youth activist Francišak Viačorka, who had previously received an exemption from military duty.
Hazing is also characteristic of neighbouring countries. For instance, in 2016 Ukrainian courts presided over 49 suits related to hazing. Meanwhile, the Russian Minister of Defence Sergei Shoigu reported that in 2016 hazing had decreased by 34%. However, in comparison with Russia and Ukraine, Belarusian hazing garners much less attention.
In Ukraine, human-rights activists created a 'Committee of Soldiers' Mothers' to monitor and report violations of soldiers' rights. Similarly, the Russian 'Union of Soldiers' Mothers' is highly active and boasts many regional offices. In January 2016, the union also unveiled a mobile app for victims of hazing. Unfortunately, there are no similarly well-organised groups defending soldiers' rights in Belarus.
Although hazing practises in Belarus have been on the decrease, the phenomenon continues to have serious repercussions. Soldiers still resort to bullying and follow hazing traditions. Nevertheless, authorities tend to cover up cases of hazing and rarely report instances.
To overcome hazing, the Belarusian army is in dire need of reforms aimed at making military structures more transparent. An important step would be the creation of a military police force or monitoring agency to address violations of soldiers' rights.