Lukashenko’s Monopoly: Media Freedoms In The “Last Dictatorship In Europe” In The Internet Age

By: Michael T. Moran

I.         Introduction

Belarus, a European nation located to the east of Poland, is notoriously dubbed the “Last Dictatorship in Europe” because of the Soviet-style authoritarian system it imposes on its citizens, while shrouding authoritarianism with deceptive notions of constitutional democracy.[1] Alexander Lukashenko has been the “elected” President of the Republic of Belarus since 1994 and recently won the 2015 presidential election, albeit with international doubts regarding electoral integrity, with 83.5 percent of the popular vote.[2] Unsurprisingly, Lukashenko is described in the West as “Europe’s last dictator” because he runs a country in which “little dissent is tolerated.”[3]

Article 33 of the 1994 Belarusian Constitution guarantees an individual’s “freedom of thoughts and beliefs and [ ] free expression.”[4] Moreover, Article 33 declares the mass media shall not be monopolized “by the State, public associations or individual citizens,” and censorship is prohibited.[5] However, media freedoms were severely curbed in wake of Lukashenko’s consolidation of presidential power.[6] Shortly after coming into power, Lukashenko’s government swiftly restricted media and press freedoms—the Belarusian government owns nearly all of the country’s newspapers, independent newspapers are “relatively small and lack adequate funding,” and the media is “free” to the extent that “it is responsible and helps [Lukashenko’s] presidency.”[7] Lukashenko’s control over the media is exemplified by his usage of media outlets during the 1996 referendum[8] while barring his political opponents the same opportunity.[9] Lukashenko’s authoritarian regime is epitomized when international observers describe mass protests against the regime and its repressive measures as “an unusual sight.”[10]

II.         Background

Belarus was a “constituent republic” of the former Soviet Union following World War II, but declared its independence in 1991 following the dissolution of the Soviet Union.[11] However, since obtaining independence, Belarus has maintained close political and economic ties with Russia.[12] Alexander Lukashenko, the country’s “only directly elected president,” has consolidated power through authoritarian means and imposed restrictions on various freedoms enshrined in the Belarusian Constitution, including freedom of speech and the press.[13] For example, a 2008 media law gave the government “a monopoly over information about political, social, and economic affairs.”[14] Moreover, Belarusian television is under complete governmental control and, contrary to the 1994 Belarusian Constitution, “does not present alternative or opposition views.”[15] Nationwide broadcasting outlets are nonexistent, and private newspapers are limited because of a state-run press distribution monopoly.[16] Unfortunately for any remaining independent media outlets, the government employs harassment and censorship tactics to prevent unfavorable publications regarding the Lukashenko regime.[17] For example, during the 2001 presidential election, government officials confiscated an independent news outlet’s publishing equipment, detained individuals who distributed opposition newspapers, and arrested protestors.[18]

With the inception of the Internet, Belarusians have begun to turn toward the worldwide web to receive more dependable news than the news reported by the state-controlled media.[19] However, in 2015, the Lukashenko government cracked down on Internet freedoms via amendments to the aforementioned 2008 media law and allowed the regulation of websites and blogs through the Ministry of Information.[20] As a result, the government is the owner of Belarus’s “only internet service provider” and actively blocks opposition sites and independent media outlets.[21] The Lukashenko regime has been able to control Wi-Fi networks, intercept web traffic, and prevent access to websites such as Facebook and popular opposition websites.[22] Nonetheless, scholars have noted, “[I]t is unwise to expect instant results when trying to influence authoritarian states,” but access to free media “certainly put[s] pressure on the ruling elite by forcing rulers to deal with a better-informed, and better-organized, population and political opposition.”[23]

III.         Analysis – Belarusians and the International Community Exert Pressure on the Lukashenko Regime

Tensions climaxed in Belarus in March 2017 following the Belarusian government’s “Freedom Day” crackdown, which came after “unprecedented mass demonstrations in 13 Belarusian cities.”[24] Freedom Day commemorates the proclamation of the Belarusian People’s Republic in 1918.[25] However, the annual commemoration has been employed by political opposition to protest Lukashenko’s authoritarian regime.[26] In connection with peaceful protests in Minsk, Belarus’s capital city, the government arbitrarily detained approximately 700 people, including more than 100 journalists.[27] News outlets reported that police officers “punched, kicked, clubbed, and otherwise abused many of the detainees,” many of whom were journalists.[28] Two days after the government crackdown, Belarusian courts sentenced 177 individuals, including journalists, with fines and/or detention following “fabricated” misdemeanor convictions.[29] A human rights lawyer labeled the court hearings as “simple rubber-stamp[ed]” decisions because eight journalists were sentenced up to 15 days in detention for unsanctioned gathering and hooliganism convictions.[30]

In response to the unlawful detentions, brutal police beatings, and faux court hearings, President Lukashenko proclaimed, “[A] group of militants seeking to fuel unrest in the country had been identified.”[31] Commenting on the chaos from the protests, Lukashenko assigned fault on the “foreign-supported elements [that] were agitating to bring him down.”[32] However, “[t]he recent events in Belarus are a clear attempt by President Lukashenko to silence protesters on the eve of a nationwide rally against his policies.”[33] International organizations, such as the European Union, condemned Lukashenko’s violent crackdown[34] and urged Belarus “to respect freedom of assembly and association by peaceful protesters.”[35] Moreover, these thuggish clampdowns against planned peaceful protests of the Lukashenko regime are in direct violation of Article 35 of the Belarusian Constitution.[36] Instead, Lukashenko unleashed pure hell on his own people and the media following “two months of protests and opposition to his 23-year rule.”[37] By simply exercising their constitutional rights, protesters in Minsk wished to march down the city’s major streets to show their dismay with the regime, but instead were quickly met with police violence.[38] In fear of having his regime challenged by members of the opposition, Lukashenko ordered his police forces to arrest and detain protesters and journalists reporting on the peaceful protests.[39]

IV.         Conclusion

While the Belarusian Constitution enumerates freedoms of the media, press, and protest, recent demonstrations and subsequent government responses in March 2017 exemplify the brutality of the Lukashenko regime, which has remained essentially unchallenged since Lukashenko’s election victory in 1994.[40] Belarus under Lukashenko “is a big fan of Soviet nostalgia and keeps political expression under tight control, which [Lukashenko] believes creates stability in the country.”[41] However, Belarusian citizens and international observers are dissatisfied toward “the government’s crackdown on alternative voices.”[42] With the inception of the Internet, Belarusian users have begun navigating around government-inspired censorship, meaning Belarusians are beginning to actively access information beyond the government propaganda supplied by Lukashenko and his political cronies.[43] To guarantee a free media and political expression (which is already guaranteed under the country’s constitution), aptly informed Belarusian citizens and the international community must continue to mount political pressure on the Lukashenko regime. If so, the protests of March 2017 and future protests along with uncensored Internet access will prove to be the driving forces that overthrow the status quo and implement a constitutional system that guarantees the freedoms already enumerated in the Belarusian Constitution.[44]


[1] See Peter Pomerantsev, Why Europe’s Last Dictatorship Keeps Surprising Everyone, The Wash. Post (Mar. 25, 2017),; see Канстытуцыя Рэспублікі Беларусь [Constitution], infra note 4, at art. 33. In Belarus, “[t]he cult of the Soviet secret police remains strong,” which is ironically bears the name of KGB. See Pomerantsev, supra note 1.

[2] Id. A government-run website publicizes a photo of a smiling and welcoming President Lukashenko, which amplifies Lukashenko’s persona as “one of the statesmen, whose popularity can, first of all, be explained by their personal merits and by the support of the people.” President of the Republic of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko, The Press Serv. of the Republic of Belarus, (last accessed Aug. 12, 2017).

[3] Belarus Protests: Hundreds Arrested After Defying Ban, BBC News (Mar. 25, 2017),

[4] Канстытуцыя Рэспублікі Беларусь [Constitution] Mar. 15, 1994, art. 33 (Belr.).

[5] Id.

[6] See Eric R. Reed, Descent into Authoritarianism: Barriers to Constitutional Rule in Belarus, 28 Hastings Int’l & Comp. L. Rev. 147, 149–50 (2004).

[7] Id. at 150–51.

[8] The 1996 referendum, which was questioned based on its legitimacy, expanded Lukashenko’s political power “at the expense of an independent legislature and judiciary.” Michael R. Gordon, President of Belarus Wins Referendum on Expanding his Power, N.Y. Times (Nov. 26, 1996),

[9] See Reed, supra note 6, at 151.

[10] See generally Amanda Erickson, Belarus Had a Large Protest Today. Is it the Beginning of a Movement, or the End?, Wash. Post (Mar. 25, 2017),

[11] Europe: Belarus, Cent. Intelligence Agency (Aug. 1, 2017),

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] Belarus, Freedom House, (last accessed Aug. 12, 2017).

[15] Id.

[16] Id. In fact, Belarus “remains the only European country with no privately-owned nationwide media,” and the state-run media is utilized primarily to buttress the Lukashenko government. Violations of Freedom of Expression and the Media Continue in Belarus – UN Rights Expert, UN News Centre (Oct. 28, 2016),

[17] Belarus, supra note 14. Additionally, freelancers that are employed by foreign, unaccredited news outlets may be punished criminally. Id.

[18] Reed, supra note 6, at 151. Lukashenko garnered 76 percent of the popular vote in 2001 presidential election and dominated in part due to increasing the distribution of pro-Lukashenko newspapers while also curbing the distribution of opposition newspapers. Id.

[19] Belarus, supra note 14.

[20] Id.

[21] Id. Commentators on the subject indicate that “[t]he Iron Curtain is returning to Eastern Europe, this time via the Internet.” Sarah Kaufman & Oren Dotan, Belarus Has Shut Off Part of the Internet, Vocativ (Dec. 21, 2014, 8:41 AM), Belarus is labeled an “Internet Enemy” because of the Lukashenko regime’s hostility toward promoting political expression on the Internet. Id.

[22] Jerome Taylor, Government of Belarus Using ‘New Tools’ to Silence Dissent on Internet, Says Index on Censorship Report, Indep. (Jan. 4, 2013, 2:37 PM),

[23] Yaraslau Kryvoi, The Achilles’ Heel of Autocracies: The Role of Media in Transition to Democracy, 46 Willamette L. Rev. 75, 95–96, 98 (2009) (arguing economic sanctions are ineffective when dealing with authoritarian states and repressed populations should “self-organize and coordinate” so as to learn “truthful information and organize in political parties” rather than be limited to the “‘organic’ rights” the government propagandizes).

[24] Belarus: ‘Freedom Day’ Crackdown, Hum. Rts. Watch (Apr. 3, 2017, 11:00 PM), In response to the protests, riot police deployed water canons across the country and shut down Internet access. See Tracy McVeigh, Riot Police in Belarus Attack Protesters Calling for End to ‘Dictatorship’, The Guardian (Mar. 25, 2017, 3:50 PM),

[25] Belarus: ‘Freedom Day’ Crackdown, supra note 24.

[26] Id.

[27] Id. A journalist asserted authorities repeatedly harassed her and threatened to take her child away from her unless she stopped covering the Freedom Day protests. See id.

[28] Id. Some of the violent police beatings included grabbing and pushing detainees into police vans without reason, and dragging detainees by their arms, kneeing detainees in the stomach with metal knee guards. Id. A participant in the protest noted that the police officers were “beating the participants, dragging women by the hair to buses.” Belarus Protests: Hundreds Arrested After Defying Ban, BBC News (Mar. 25, 2017),

[29] Belarus: ‘Freedom Day’ Crackdown, supra note 24.

[30] Id.

[31] Journalists, Booksellers Among Activists Arrested in Belarus Ahead of Protests, PEN Am. (Mar. 22, 2017), Demonstrations were also sparked because of the so-called “tax on parasites,” which allows the government to fine individuals who need to have their employment registered with the government—namely, writers, artists, and others who work independently of the Belarusian government. Id.

[32] McVeigh, supra note 24.

[33] Journalists, Booksellers Among Activists Arrested in Belarus Ahead of Protests, supra note 31.

[34] Belarus: ‘Freedom Day’ Crackdown, supra note 24.

[35] Journalists, Booksellers Among Activists Arrested in Belarus Ahead of Protests, supra note 31.

[36] See Канстытуцыя Рэспублікі Беларусь [Constitution] Mar. 15, 1994, art. 35 (Belr.) (“The freedom to hold assemblies, rallies, street marches, demonstrations and pickets that do not disturb law and order or violate the rights of other citizens of the Republic of Belarus, shall be guaranteed by the State. The procedure for conducting the above events shall be determined by the law.”) (emphasis added).

[37] McVeigh, supra note 24.

[38] Belarus Protests: Hundreds Arrested After Defying Ban, supra note 3.

[39] Id.

[40] See Feliz Solomon, An Opposition Member has been Elected to Belarus’ Parliament for the First Time in 20 Years, Time (Sept. 11, 2016), (commenting on political opposition in Belarus).

[41] Kaufman & Dotan, supra note 21.

[42] Id.

[43] See id.

[44] See generally Benno Zogg, Protests in Belarus Test its Resilient Status Quo, Int’l Peace Inst. (Apr. 26, 2017), (“Yet the system in place in Belarus may ultimately prove unsustainable in the long term. The gap between the need for economic and social reforms and the reluctance of the government to loosen its grip is widening, as evidenced by the recent protests.”).