How censorship wins

Januskevic Publishing House opened for business in Belarus in 2014 with the aim of publishing history books. The initial euphoria of launching a business passed very quickly.

At first, issues related to the publishing industry more broadly. It became clear that you can’t live in Belarus only publishing history books – diversification of production was required. So we diversified into e-books and then to the publication of fiction, translations from foreign languages and children’s books. We did have some good years. Between 2017 and 2022 we developed quickly. We even founded our own online bookshop. Our mission always was to make books that are interesting to the reader. We had a broad slogan: We make books that you want to read.

But after the re-election of long-time Belarus president Alyaksandr Lukashenka in 2020 and his subsequent violet crackdown on protests, and after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022, the troubles started. In literally three days we were kicked out of the office that had served us as a showroom and a pickup point for books. We were left without a home.

We soon managed to open a fully-fledged bookshop that would serve us as an office at the same time. Except the expulsion from our original office was not some spontaneous decision. It was a deliberate signal. On the day of the opening of the Knihauka bookshop on 16 May 2022, propagandists from state mass media outlets and officers from HUBAZiK (Main Directorate for Combating Organized Crime and Corruption) turned up. The HUBAZiK said that extremist literature was being sold in our bookshop and, with a prosecutor`s approval, they checked all the books in the shop and seized 15 items. Why these specific ones? I’m not entirely sure, although there was a certain theme through them. They were all by Belarusian authors, all history or nonfiction and some children’s books, like Iosif Brodsky’s book The Ballad of the Tugboat.

In an even worse twist bookshop employee Nasta Karnatskaya and I were arrested. I spent 28 days in jail – three terms for three court rulings – and Nasta spent 23 days in jail. This is the only case where somebody was apprehended and imprisoned for distributing books.

While it was challenging before, the radicalisation of the government’s actions against culture, and against the publishing business in particular, gained speed after Russia’s attack on Ukraine

After being released, I realised that the publishing house could no longer work as it had. There was the external pressure that manifested itself in these arrests, as well as other pressures: literally the day after the closing of the bookshop, for the first time in Belarus’ history, the celebrated fiction book The Dogs of Europe by Alhierd Bacharevič, which was published by us and turned into a play staged throughout the world, was deemed “extremist material”. This was a very bad sign. We were moving towards a point where the publishing house itself could be recognised as extremist. I knew then that it was dangerous to stay in Belarus. It was becoming too dangerous to make books. And so we left Belarus and opened up shop in Poland.

It was definitely the right decision. Our publishing license was revoked from us in early January 2023. This was carried out by a court for the first time in Belarus` history according to the provisions of the Law of the Republic of Belarus On Publishing, with the reason given that we had systematically published literature which later was included in the list of extremist materials. To date, four books by our publishing house have been recognised as extremist.

The treatment we received was part of a systemic attack against the independent publishing sector in Belarus. It was not only us who were targeted. Other Belarusian publishing houses were and are victims. Haliyafy, for example, was forced to initiate bankruptcy proceedings. Knihazbor, despite its attempt to remain on its feet and resume its activities, was also forced to close. Today it’s impossible to work freely and to define one’s own publishing policy in Belarus.

In January 2023, we were stripped of our publishing licence. Since then, we have been not allowed to publish books in Belarus.

Following this, on 20 January I set up a fully-fledged publishing house functioning as a Polish legal entity. Since then we have published more than 20 books in Belarusian and we mail books to Belarus. You could argue that our forced relocation from Belarus to Poland has been successful.

But while I still have a licence to distribute books in Belarus and I could sell those I published earlier, almost no one takes them for sale because I have a black mark. These are the consequences of total fear in a society.

Of those publishers who left Belarus, no others continue publishing. They’re now engaged in other businesses: some have switched to writing, for example.

New publishing houses have appeared in Belarus and are managed by new people. Those who remain in Belarus are not publishing books with any strong social implications. I see that when something appears it is “neutral” literature or aimed at children. Those who suffered repression have left their businesses because there are simply no opportunities for their activities in Belarus. Either you have to work in line with the government policy, or you just don’t work.

While it was challenging before, the radicalisation of the government’s actions against culture, and against the publishing business in particular, gained speed after Russia’s attack on Ukraine. Now all kinds of barriers have disappeared for Belarus authorities in the last year – they simply do what they want.

As for wholesale deliveries of foreign publishing houses to networks of booksellers in Belarus, there have been none at all from anywhere except Russia.

Indeed, since February 2022 Belarus has become part of the “Russian World”, a part of the cultural policy which turns Belarus into a Western province of Russia. The prospects for the development of Belarusian culture, the Belarusian language and the Belarusian book industry under Lukashenka are very grim. It will be an imitation, paint-by-numbers culture based on folklore and ethnography. Nothing more, I’m afraid.

A first English translation of a new short story, “Punitive Squad”, by Alhierd Bacharevič, is published in the winter edition of Index on Censorship. This article first appeared in The Bookseller.

Contents – Having the last laugh: The comedians who won’t be silenced


The Winter 2023 issue of Index looks at how comedians are being targeted by oppressive regimes around the world in order to crack down on dissent. In this issue, we attempt to uncover the extent of the threat to comedy worldwide, highlighting examples of comedians being harassed, threatened or silenced by those wishing to censor them.

The writers in this issue report on example of comedians being targeted all over the globe, from Russia to Uganda to Brazil. Laughter is often the best medicine in dark times, making comedy a vital tool of dissent. When the state places restrictions on what people can joke about and suppresses those who breach their strict rules, it's no laughing matter.

Up Front

Still laughing, just, by Jemimah Steinfeld: When free speech becomes a laughing matter.

The Index, by Mark Frary: The latest in the world of free expression, from Russian elections to a memorable gardener


Silent Palestinians, by Samir El-Youssef: Voices of reason are being stamped out.

Soundtrack for a siege, by JP O'Malley: Bosnia’s story of underground music, resistance and Bono.

Libraries turned into Arsenals, by Sasha Dovzhyk: Once silent spaces in Ukraine are pivotal in times of war.

Shot by both sides, by Martin Bright: The Russian writers being cancelled.

A sinister news cycle, by Winthrop Rodgers: A journalist speaks out from behind bars in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Smoke, fire and a media storm, by John Lewinski: Can respect for a local culture and media scrutiny co-exist? The aftermath of disaster in Hawaii has put this to the test.

Message marches into lives and homes, by Anmol Irfan: How Pakistan's history of demonising women's movements is still at large today.

A snake devouring its own tail, by JS Tennant: A Cuban journalist faces civic death, then forced emigration.

A 'seasoned dissident' speaks up, by Martin Bright: Writing against Russian authority has come full circle for Gennady Katsov.

Special Report: Having the last laugh - The comedians who won't be silenced

And God created laughter (so fuck off), by Shalom Auslander: On failing to be serious, and trading rabbis for Kafka.

The jokes that are made - and banned - in China, by Jemimah Steinfeld: Journalist turned comedian Vicky Xu is under threat after exposing Beijing’s crimes but in comedy she finds a refuge.

Giving Putin the finger, by John Sweeney: Reflecting on a comedy festival that tells Putin to “fuck off”.

Meet the Iranian cartoonist who had to flee his country, by Daisy Ruddock: Kianoush Ramezani is laughing in the face of the Ayatollah.

The SLAPP stickers, by Rosie Holt and Charlie Holt: Sometimes it’s not the autocrats, or the audience, that comedians fear, it’s the lawyers.

This great stage of fools, by Danson Kahyana: A comedy troupe in Uganda pushes the line on acceptable speech.

Joke's on Lukashenka speaking rubbish Belarusian. Or is it?, by Maria Sorensen: Comedy under an authoritarian regime could be hilarious, it it was allowed.

Laughing matters, by Daisy Ruddock: Knock knock. Who's there? The comedy police.

Taliban takeover jokes, by Spozhmai Maani and Rizwan Sharif: In Afghanistan, the Taliban can never by the punchline.

Turkey's standups sit down, by Kaya Ge: Turkey loses its sense of humour over a joke deemed offensive.

An unfunny double act, by Thiện Việt: A gold-plated steak and a maternal slap lead to problems for two comedians in Vietnam.

Dragged down, by Tilewa Kazeem: Nigeria's queens refuse to be dethroned.

Turning sorrow into satire, by Zahra Hankir: A lesson from Lebanon: even terrible times need comedic release.

'Hatred has won, the artist has lost', by Salil Tripathi: Hindu nationalism and cries of blasphemy are causing jokes to land badly in India.

Did you hear the one about...? No, you won't have, by Alexandra Domenech: Putin has strangled comedy in Russia, but that doesn't stop Russian voices.

Of Conservatives, cancel culture and comics, by Simone Marques: In Brazil, a comedy gay Jesus was met with Molotov cocktails.

Standing up for Indigenous culture, by Katie Dancey-Downs: Comedian Janelle Niles deals in the uncomfortable, even when she'd rather not.


Your truth or mine, by Bobby Duffy: Debate: Is there a free speech crisis on UK campuses?

All the books that might not get written, by Andrew Lownie: Freedom of information faces a right royal problem.

An image or a thousand words?, by Ruth Anderson: When to look at an image and when to look away.


Lukashenka's horror dream, by Alhierd Bacharevič and Mark Frary: The Belarusian author’s new collection of short stories is an act of resistance. We publish one for the first time in English.

Lost in time and memory, by Xue Tiwei: In a new short story, a man finds himself haunted by the ghosts of executions.

The hunger games, by Stephen Komarnyckyj and Mykola Khvylovy: The lesson of a Ukrainian writer’s death must be remembered today.

The woman who stopped Malta's mafia taking over, by Paul Caruana Galizia: Daphne Caruana Galizia’s son reckons with his mother’s assassination.

What does Tusk’s victory mean for oppressed groups in Poland?

The confirmation of Donald Tusk as Poland’s new prime minister, ending the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party’s eight year spell in power, offers cautious optimism that freedom of expression for the country’s minority groups will be better protected. Tusk’s appointment follows October’s parliamentary election, in which a broad coalition of opposition parties secured the majority of votes needed to form a government, which was officially voted in by MPs in December.

Throughout the eight years the PiS spent in power, freedom of expression in the country was continually eroded. Minority groups were targeted through strict legislation and judicial reform, while the party also tightened their grip on the media and encouraged far-right extremism

One of the worst affected groups were LGBT+ people. In 2023, Poland was named as the worst country for LGBT+ rights in the EU in a report by watchdog ILGA-Europe for the third successive year. This is no surprise given the homophobic rhetoric pushed by the country’s leaders in recent years: PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński claimed that LGBT+ people “threaten the Polish state”; former education minister Przemysław Czarnek likened what he called “LGBT ideology” to Nazism; and in 2019, Krakow’s archbishop described LGBT+ rights as a “rainbow plague”.

Spokesperson for the Love Does Not Exclude Association, a national non-governmental organisation fighting for marriage equality in Poland, Hubert Sobecki told Index that the organisation views the new government with “a mixture of hope and anxiety”.

They are hoping that the new Tusk-led coalition will pass laws legalising same-sex marriage, a concept that Sobecki explained is still seen as “radical” in the state, as well as addressing other issues such as same-sex parenthood and rising hate crimes, although he accused the polish leader of “slaloming” around these issues in the past.

“I do expect some actual specific concrete changes being made, legislative changes,” Sobecki said. “The current prime minister, Mr Tusk, we know him, we have a history, let's call it that. He was quite reluctant to be remotely close to an allied position.”

It is clear that change won’t happen overnight. Eight years of the PiS in power has seen anti-LGBT+ sentiment rise throughout the country, with pride parades being targeted by violent counter-protesters and some regional governments passing resolutions to effectively make areas of the state an ‘LGBT-free zone’.

Sobecki’s descriptions of life in Poland in recent years paint a shocking portrait of the lived reality of LGBT+ people, who faced near constant abuse and discrimination in the state. He told of the increasing wave of people within the LGBT+ community who are struggling with mental illness, and those who have even had to migrate as a result of their treatment. During one incident, Sobecki recalled activists being targeted by police during a peaceful protest in Warsaw. “They were basically attacked, they were dragged on the pavement. Some people needed medical attention, some of them were molested after they got arrested. It’s mind-numbing,” he said.

However, Sobecki suggested that while the situation is bad, such incidents have also served to show just how much things needed to change. “It created a huge wave of support from people who thought ‘it’s too much’”, he explained. “After several years of this hate campaign being run, they can’t really shut it out anymore, they can’t remain blind to it.”

When asked whether he believed legislation would be enough to secure equality for LGBT+ people, Sobecki agreed that changed attitudes were as important as changed laws. 

“What you need on the social level is visibility, storytelling techniques, constant campaigning, presence, representation, from the micro level of having dinner with your grandparents to the macro level of securing proper coverage on the main news channels,” he said. 

However, there was still confidence that the government would make a difference. “What they can do is stop the hate in the public media. That is going to be a huge game changer,” he said. “You have millions of people who only watch one or two channels, who are effectively brainwashed. This change will be massive if it happens.” 

Sobecki also pointed to moments, such as the recent ruling made by the European Court of Human Rights that Poland’s lack of legal recognition and protection for same-sex marriages breaches the European Convention on Human Rights, as evidence that progress is being made, albeit slowly. 

“It was something that we’ve been working on for eight years, because those guys do take their time!” he said. “We knew that this was a message for the new government because the courts are savvy like that. We managed to get some responses from members of the new government who said ‘yes, this is a clear sign that we need to make a change’”.

The election results are also likely to be welcomed by proponents of women’s rights. During their years in power the PiS clamped down on reproductive rights in Poland, ending state funding for IVF and enforcing a prescription requirement for emergency contraception. Most significantly, Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal, an institution which critics say is heavily politicised by the PiS, implemented a near-total ban on abortion in the country in 2021, with the only exceptions being instances of rape, incest or a threat to health. As a result of this ruling, doctors and others who help women terminate pregnancies may face up to three years in prison, rising to eight if it occurs after the point of viability. These actions, which the PiS say have been made in an attempt to boost fertility rates and promote Catholic values, have had a disturbing effect on women’s freedoms in the state. Just this year, Polish activist Justyna Wydrzyńska was sentenced to 8 months’ community service for helping a pregnant woman to access abortion pills in what Amnesty International described as a “depressing low in the repression of reproductive rights in Poland” which serves as a “chilling snapshot of the consequences of such restrictive laws”.

Sobecki spoke about the need for change across all areas of society, as he argued that the PiS “weaponised the state” against a variety of social groups. “They basically attacked women’s rights openly as part of their agenda,” he said. “There's a lot of pressure and expectation from the public for change, for something new, for something that is progressive.”

However, there are still concerns that even without PiS in power, the new Tusk-led government will not do enough to protect these rights. One feminist activist, Jana Shostak, was dropped by the opposition alliance after voicing support for wider abortion rights. She told the Guardian that her trust in Tusk to fight for women’s rights is “limited”.

There are concerns that the new government will resist calls for more progressive protections on rights and freedoms in an attempt to placate conservative voters. These worries extend beyond women and LGBT+ rights to immigration; Tusk warned of the “danger” of migrants and called for stricter border controls during a campaign speech which was denounced as racist and xenophobic by human rights NGOs.

The PiS being ousted from power sparked hope, but action from the new government to prevent women and minority groups from being silenced and threatened is much-needed. Sobecki vows to keep fighting: “At some point you just think it’s such a mess, what can you do? You just keep on doing what you’ve been doing, showing actual faces, actual people, telling their stories, trying to be hopeful that somehow it manages to get through.”

Moments of Freedom 2023

Moments of Freedom was Index on Censorship’s 2023 year-end campaign where we asked our readers and supporters to vote on the moments during the past twelve months that have given them hope that the world is not as bad as it sometimes feels.

Index’s staff and board looked back over the year and highlighted their moments where freedom of expression has been strengthened or celebrated. This could have been through the introduction of new legislation supporting free expression, the release of a prisoner of conscience or the escape of a dissident from tyranny to a safe third country.

Egyptian blogger Abdelrahman "Moka" Tarek reaches safety

Launch of the Begum Academy

First anniversary of women's protests in Iran

Rwanda declared "not a safe country"

Alexei Navalny's reaction to latest charges - Russia

Badiucao exhibition in Warsaw

Silent strike protests in Myanmar

Release of Mortaza Behboudi and Matiullah Wesa

Afghan TV present Spozhmai Maani finds refuge in France