'Europe's last dictatorship' cracks down on the media

It's been nearly a month since Belarus President Lukashenka was declared winner of an election widely regarded as illegitimate. Since then, the Belarusian regime has been living up to its name of "Europe's last dictatorship" by pursuing a crackdown on opposition media and activists.

It's been a month since President Aleksandr Lukashenka was declared winner of an election in Belarus widely regarded as illegitimate. A demonstration against fraudulent vote-counting on election night on December 19th ended in mass arrests and beatings.

Since then, the Belarusian regime has been living up to its name of "Europe's last dictatorship" by pursuing a crackdown on opposition media and activists, led by secret services that still go by the old Soviet name of KGB.

Defying international calls for prisoners to be released, Lukashenka has said around two dozen of them - including opposition front-runners Andrej Sannikau and the badly-beaten Uladzimir Nyaklyaeu - will face trial and up to 15 years in jail. They have had little access to lawyers or to their families.

Brussels has threatened sanctions. Meanwhile Poland, Belarus's neighbour, is trying to lead its EU partners by example in taking a more proactive stance. In the words of Robert Tyszkiewicz, who heads the Polish parliament's Committee for Belarusian Affairs, "We need to isolate the regime, whilst opening up to society".

This has consisted in several unilateral measures, mainly geared towards helping to spread information and galvanise civil society. Visa fees for Belarusians travelling to Poland have been dropped and the number of Polish university places for Belarusian students is to be increased. And Poland is sharply increasing its funding for independent Belarusian media outlets, most notably the Belsat TV station.

Belsat is the only Belarusian-language channel. 90 percent funded by the Polish state, it operates from Warsaw, with a network of intrepid correspondents regularly sending footage from Belarus. But they are subject to continual harassment and live in fear of arrest.

Belsat provided France 24 with some pictures of recent events in Belarus: the raiding of independent media offices in Minsk; the 3-year-old son of Sannikau and journalist Iryna Khalip (also imprisoned), whom authorities are threatening to take to an orphanage; the release, under cover of darkness, of prisoners arrested at the December 19th demonstration and held for a fortnight:

639 out of an estimated 20,000 demonstrators were arrested that night. The authorities have said anyone who was there is a potential suspect. People who were there have been receiving phone calls from the police, who say they located them via their mobile phones and invited them for an "informal chat".

These meetings seem designed to nip nascent activism in the bud: without actually arresting people, the police are letting them know that they have their eye on them and hope to discourage waverers from demonstrating again next time.

The police are also looking for eyewitness accounts of violence on the part of the demonstrators. But the consensus among opposition figures - and my own impression from having been there and from talking to other journalists who were there - is that what little violence there was was the work of agents provocateurs.

Will these tactics work, though? While the unexpectedly harsh wave of repression is a setback for Belarusian opposition leaders and a tragedy for some of their families, it may have galvanised the movement for freedom. And while state media still presents a wholly positive view of the country, alternative views are being heard more and more as independent media increase their readership and viewership. The number of people who watch Belsat at least "occasionally" doubled to one million in the past nine months. That's still only ten percent of the population - but it's a start.


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