Belarus is a shockingly young country, having gained its independence in 1991 following the fall of the Soviet Union. Censorship is not a new phenomenon within the country, but it appears to be growing more extreme and restrictive by the year. With the recent start of a Ukrainian-Russian War, this may have more serious implications for independent journalists and citizens alike, as independent and reliable news becomes more necessary. Can we predict where Belarus will stand on the media given this new development?
Belarus’ current president is Alexander Lukashenko, who has been in office since 1994. Citizens and other forms of opposition cast doubt on his electoral victories, with accusations of illegitimacy being particularly prominent since 2020. Doubts on the legitimacy of Lukashenko’s office from the international community has led to Belarus being widely considered to be an authoritarian state. While Lukashenko has attempted to maintain the veneer of legitimacy and a distorted image of democracy, legislation increasing censorship and the prosecution of independent journalists have sent a message to the international community that Lukashenko has no intention of reducing his consolidation of authoritarian power in Belarus.
The Structure of the Belarusian Government
At first glance, Belarus’ government structure does not indicate that they are a country that has fallen into an authoritarian regime. In accordance with the country’s constitution, Belarus directly elects a president, who serves as the head of state. The constitution also includes a bicameral legislature and prime minister. However, under the regime of Lukashenko, Belarus has fallen into the category of authoritarian states. According to Freedom House, their treatment of journalists and alternative media is a brazen example of Lukashenko’s attempt at increasing his authoritarian power and minimizing freedom of speech, expression, and the press.
Legislation Targeting Journalists
In 2018, Lukashenko introduced a piece of legislation targeting alleged “fake news” in an attempt to undermine independent media. Government officials defended the law by asserting that libel must be prevented, particularly in regards to false pieces of information that would disturb the state of public opinion. This law was one step further in the government’s attempt to tighten their ability to moderate spaces for independent media and fine them into submission.
Lukashenko using legal routes of creating legislation alludes to what is commonly considered “stealth authoritarianism” as coined by Ozan Varol. However, the international community’s categorization of Belarus as an authoritarian state undermines Lukashenko’s weak attempt at maintaining a semblance of stealth. Ultimately, however, Lukashenko is using legitimate channels to pass media censorship laws, which alludes to an exacerbated state of authoritarianism, stealthy or not. Varol explains that legislation that intensifies punishment for alleged libel “increases the cost of criticism,” which leads to journalists self-censoring in order to circumvent jail time.
Such “fake news” legislation would grant the government increased power in dictating what is considered “fake news,” which also grants them an increasingly significant role in shaping public opinion. Thus, if the Belarusian government espouses false, state-oriented propaganda, it may create a result similar to what occurred in the United States during the 2016 election. This is best demonstrated by Richard Gunther, who found that fake news had a substantial role in influencing voters to not vote for Hillary Clinton. This was caused by a “pollution of public discourse.”
Given Belarus’ geographical and political proximity to the Ukrainian-Russian War, this may have very serious implications for future elections, public opinion, and opposition if Belarus becomes more involved in the conflict.
Prosecution of Independent Media
In addition to journalists being targeted, independent television stations, such as Belsat have been accused and investigated for criminal slander. Belsat is considered to be one of the more prominent alternative media stations, as it was the first independent station to be established in Belarus. As a result of their prominence, however, Belsat has been targeted the most, as the government has arrested their journalists and fined them in order to drain their funding.
Lukashenko’s approach to media censorship is different from his neighbor, Vladimir Putin in Russia. According to Scott Gehlbach, Putin takes the approach of minimal resistance, where he maintains control over the “commanding heights” of media, particularly national television.  Lukashenko takes a much more targeted and controlled approach, not allowing many sources of independent media to fall through the cracks.
Courts Aiding Censorship
Most recently in 2021, the Belarusian Supreme Court has also aided the government’s increased censorship by allowing for the government to liquidate the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BJA). This move is considered to be the most oppressive and overt yet. However, the use of legitimately established courts still allows Lukashenko to maintain a thin veneer of legitimacy.
Lukashenko’s decades-long rule has granted him the ability to consolidate authoritarian power, especially creating an iron grip on the media. The recent turn of events with the Russian invasion of Ukraine has grave implications for the future of the media. The Belarusian government has incentive to enhance censorship in order to force most media to align with Russia, given their significant political and economic ties to Russia. The future of dissent in Belarus is bleak. Ozan Varol, “Stealth Authoritarianism,” Iowa Law Review 2015, 1693.  Gunther et al., Fake News Did Have a Significant Impact on the Vote in the 2016 Election, Working Paper, Ohio State University, 4.  Scott Gehlbach, “Reflections on Putin and the Media,” Post-Soviet Affairs 2010, 78.