August 29, 2005

Internet: The last space for free speech in Belarus

Valery Kalinovsky


MINSK -- "Two by two is five, says the presidential decree."

That is the message scrawled on a school blackboard, topped by a portrait of Pythagoras refashioned into a bust of Belarus' authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko - all a cartoon published on the Internet, the country's last outlet for free speech.

The same cartoon, titled "Our school", has students surf the Net for Websites of opposition newspapers such as Nasha Niva, much to their teacher's chagrin. One of them comes back home to surf television channels - all of which are simultaneously broadcasting a Lukashenko speech.

This cartoon - and others, mocking the ironfisted president as a skiing pig or a puppet-operator pulling strings on television anchors and judges - had so far cost its authors seizure of their computers by the KGB and a criminal investigation for "defamation of the chief of state", which could land them in jail for years.

"It is ridiculous to call these cartoons defamatory. We originally did not mean them for a political weapon but a citizen initiative. It was after the KGB's intervention that the thing took on political dimensions," raged Pavel Morozov, the only one of the site's young creators that agreed to provide his family name in a recent meeting at a Minsk cafe.

Morozov, former student at the European Humanitarian University (EGU), closed due to its unorthodox teaching methods, said that he was convinced that legal prosecution would not stop the Internet proliferation of satirical cartoons on Lukashenko.

"Even if they arrest us, we already have four candidates willing to go on drawing cartoons. Internet is a community of free people, beyond censorship's reach," the thin, bespectacled young man assured.

Especially as the cartoons, diffused originally on the site of the Third Way group founded by Morozov and other EGU students, can now be accessed on many other Belarussian sites, such as

The Internet in Belarus is rich with online quality newspapers, which are a chief source of information for many youngsters and intellectuals in the country that Washington has described as "Europe's last dictatorship".

Among the most popular Websites is that of Belarusskaya Delovaya Gazeta, once a popular Minsk newspaper before it was shut down, now getting its word out through The Websites of opposition parties and NGOs are also active, weaving a net of links between themselves.

This network constitutes an embryo of real civil society independent of the will of the authorities, said the cartoon makers who registered their Website on a Russian server.

"Unless Lukashenko wins a lawsuit there, he would not be able to close down our site," said Oleg, a programmer in the western city of Grodno and author of the site's many cartoons, whose passport was confiscated during a KGB raid on his house.

"Political satire is a norm of political life in democratic states. Even in medieval times the king's fool always told the truth to his master's face," added Alexander, student and Website author also threatened with criminal charges.