There are two elections being contested this weekend in Belarus – a multifaceted one online, and a very simple one for real.
by Iryna Vidanava
MINSK | During national elections in many countries, the media often assail incumbents. It tends to be the other way around in Belarus, at least for the independent media. Whenever there are elections here, it is the media that come under fire from the country’s authoritarian regime. Before the last presidential elections in 2006, a number of independent publications – including my youth magazine – were forced to shut down. Journalists covering the protests that followed the rigged contest were beaten, detained, and jailed. The independent press was almost eliminated. This persecution has, however, produced some unexpected developments in the media ahead of the 19 December presidential elections.
When their newspapers were closed, editors and journalists were forced to go online. In cyberspace, they’ve not only survived but they’ve also capitalized on Belarus’ Internet boom. Since 2005, the number of Internet users in Belarus has increased by about 65 percent; today it includes more than one third of the population. And many more of them are downloading the online versions of independent publications than ever turned the pages of the print editions. For example, when it was closed down in 2005, Salidarnast (Solidarity) was a weekly with a print run of 5,000. In 2006, it launched its own website and soon had about 15,000 unique visitors a month; by this July, that number had increased to 75,000. This dramatic growth has been mirrored by other independent websites. Of the 20 most popular news and information sites, only four are run by state-controlled media.
A similar process has taken place with online social networks. The growth of LiveJournal, where Belarusians constitute the 14th largest community with more than 67,000 blogs, was actually driven by the regime’s crackdown on demonstrators protesting election machinations in 2006. With their public space to meet taken away, activists retreated to various online communities. The Internet became a virtual meeting place, where young activists could gather, share information, and plan new forms of offline resistance, such as flash mobs, campaigns to assist persecuted young people, and other forms of cyber-assisted activism. Belarus’ repressive atmosphere has spurred the popularity of Facebook and Twitter, and Vkontakte, the leading Cyrillic social network, is growing rapidly.