One of the most protracted and violent struggles for freedom of the press in Europe since the fall of the Soviet Union is unfolding in Belarus, where a presidential election widely viewed as rigged has sparked protests and a brutal crackdown. The country, about the size of Kansas, bordering Poland to the west and Russia to the east, has retained a Soviet-style communist regime since 1991.
When an election was held on December 19, the country's long-time president, Alexandr Lukashenka, claimed victory with more than 80 percent of the vote in a field with six other candidates. The results were immediately denounced as fraudulent by independent observers, and protests broke out across the country. The government responded by arresting four of the six opposition candidates and by violent suppression of the independent media. Those measures are now being met by increasing pressure from outside the country and by an agile group of journalists and human rights campaigners inside the country using the tools of social media.
Last week, I spoke via Skype with Andrei Alaksandrau, Vice Chairman of the Belarusian Association of Journalists, from his apartment in the capital of Minsk. He told me that in the month since the election, more than 20 members of his association have been placed in administrative detention "for participating in mass actions which they were attending while performing their professional journalistic duties." Six face criminal charges, with possible sentences as long as fifteen years. Many have been brutally beaten. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, which has launched a campaign on behalf of the journalists, Belarusian law permits detentions to be renewed every two months until trial.
The situation, Alaksandrau told me, prompted the BAJ to utilize social media tools to resist the crackdown, including an "alarm system" to alert supporters when police arrive at a colleague's apartment or a new person is brought into a police station for questioning, in order to document abuses if they happen. "Our people are going online immediately with emails and text messages when something is happening," he said, "there's a search going on at this place, an interrogation going on at that place." Long lines have formed outside KGB headquarters (the country's intelligence service retains the Soviet-era name) of citizens bringing parcels of food and clothing for those detained inside. "Even people who have never been involved in political or opposition activity are showing up, saying 'this is not right,' " he said. "Many of these people have never in their lives been involved in the political struggle inside Belarus."
On June 12, Alaksandrau testified at the Human Rights Subcommittee of the European Parliament, which devoted part of the day to the situation in Belarus. He told the parliamentarians he was appearing in the place of his imprisoned boss, the chairman of the Belarusian Association of Journalists. "The repression has continued," he testified. "Students are being kicked out of the universities. Professionals are losing their jobs."
Among those who also testified that day was the daughter of Uladzimir Niakliayeu, who came in a distant second to Lukashenka and is one of the country's leading poets. She appealed to the Parliament, "You have a key to my father's prison!" (Their testimony, in English, begins at the 26th minute in the Parliamentary video).
The EU has been embarrassed by Lukashenka's violent response, which comes after attempting to induce democratic reforms in the country with promises of more than $3 billion in foreign aid and friendly meetings with members of Lukashenka's cabinet. That plan has collapsed, and instead there's been a steady rise in international pressure on Lukashenka.
A coalition of more than 100 civil society and journalism organizations from across Eastern and Western Europe, Russia and Central Asia sent an appeal to the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe demanding that it sanction Belarus, which is a member, and release political prisoners.
One week after Aliaksandrau testified in Brussels, the European Parliament passed a resolution calling on the European Commission - the EU's executive body - to demand release of all prisoners of conscience and retreat from its aggressive efforts to control the press. It also calls for the freezing of all aid to the country from Europe and international financial institutions, instead channeling support to Belarusian civil society, expanding educational opportunities for Belarusian students at European universities and blocking Belarus' scheduled hosting of the World Ice Hockey Championship in 2014, "while there are political prisoners in the country."
The resolution is expected to be approved by the European Commission on Jan. 31, when it is also expected to rescind the visas for Lukashenka and several dozen other Belarusian government officials. Lukashenka denounced the effort as "baseless."