Belarus: Demonstrators attack new online legislation
02 Jul 2010

Sir Tom Stoppard grills Belarusian ambassador over the Lukashenko government’s poor record on free speech

“Are we positive that was the ambassador?” asked an onlooker. Ambassador Dr Alyaksei Mazhukhou answered questions about the state of freedom of expression in “Europe’s last dictatorship” in front of an eclectic gathering of journalists, artists and campaigners outside the London embassy on 1 July. The unusual sight of a senior diplomat actually engaging with protesters came as a big surprise to those gathered outside the embassy to highlight recent measures taken by the Belarusian regime to increase censorship.

President Aleksandr Lukashenko’s government tightened its already strong grip on the country’s internet traffic in a presidential decree that went into force on 1 July. The law allows the monitoring of all national internet usage and empowers the authorities to block websites that provide information from independent sources. The EU called the decree “a step in the wrong direction”.

Sir Tom Stoppard, the esteemed playwright and respected freedom of expression campaigner, led the interrogation by asking whether the ambassador fully appreciated the impact the government’s actions have on everyday Belarusians and their ability to express themselves freely and to receive impartial information. The Observer’s Henry Porter intervened to question Mazhukhou about his government’s prosecution of individuals found guilty of making derogatory remarks about President Lukashenko. A number of journalists have been charged by the Belarusian state for slanderous comments in recent months.

In a fascinating turn, the ambassador spoke in Belarusian to his colleague to clarify Porter’s question with regard to the definition of insult. One protester suggested afterwards that the cornered diplomat was using language as a shield despite his distinctly sophisticated grasp of the English language. The debate culminated in Porter requesting whether a team of journalists, artists, campaigners and interested parties could visit Belarus to prove how expression is censored by the government in Minsk. Mazhukhou ended the ad-hoc discussion by inviting all in attendance to visit Belarus to fully understand the complexities of the government’s policies and how they relate to society.

The Belarusian national elections are due to be held in 2011, although rumours suggest that the date could be brought forward to September. Observers suggest that the elections will be overshadowed once again by President Lukashenko’s protracted omnipotence in Belarus, where strategies reminiscient of Soviet Russia have been employed to ameliorate his decaying authority in Minsk. OSCE election observers declared the 2004 contest “un-free”. There have been no signs that the next election will be any more transparent or accountable.

The appearance of the ambassador defending the Belarusian government’s integrity on the streets of London is clearly part of a deliberate strategy to engage with the international media, giving the impression of mutual co-operation. It’s clear that the Belarusian establishment hope this will foment a more positive reaction to the upcoming election/re-election of Lukashenko. But the biggest charm offensive in Belarusian political history will be needed to disguise the corrupt reality of Lukashenko’s regime.

Actor Samuel West from the Belarus Free TheatrePlaywright and co-organiser of the protest, Alexandra Wood, read out a Charter 97 press release: “The internet is a vital tool in communication and should be available to all. Lukashenko’s law imposing censorship on the internet particularly affects those in Belarus who oppose his regime, who want to offer the Belarusian people an alternative, which is of course, his intention.”

At the end of the demonstration, Sir Tom Stoppard handed the ambassador a letter signed by a number of distinguished artists including Alan Rickman, Mark Ravenhill, Caryl Churchill and Simon Stephens, calling for an end to the curtailment of freedom of expression in Belarus. Samuel West also performed a rousing extract from Generation Jeans, a play from the multi-award winning Belarus Free Theatre.

The letter read: “We urge you to allow the people of Belarus the right to express and share their opinions freely, whether this is on the internet or not. We urge you to use your powers to prevent any further repression of citizens who hold alternative, and oppositional, beliefs to you. We urge that the practice of physical abuse and intimidation against any citizen, including those who dare to hold alternative and oppositional points of view, be stopped. Finally, we urge you to protect the right to freedom of assembly in accordance with Article 21 of the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights to which Belarus is a state party.”

The protest was in support of the Belarus Free Theatre and was organised in conjunction with the Global Artistic Campaign in Solidarity with Belarus, founded by playwright Sir Tom Stoppard.

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