Since the re-election last month of the Belarussian president Alexander Lukashenko, tensions in the country has reached new heights. Up to 200,000 people took the streets since the recent election, declared “neither free nor fair” by the Council of Europe, in the biggest protest of Belarus’ modern history.
Demonstrations have continued even with opposition presidential candidate fleeing to Lithuania. However, according to The Independent, President Lukashenko does not intend to step down and has called for the police to take a tough stance towards ending the protests. The police aggression has resulted in the violent repression of demonstrators and hundreds of protesters have been detained and assaulted. While President Lukashenko accuses the European Union of interfering with the internal affairs of Belarus, the Council of Europe has rejected the results of the election and called on the Belarussian authorities to respect fundamental human rights.
“Freemuse is concerned that the illegitimate restrictions of freedom of artistic freedom are changing from bad to worse during the crackdown of protests after the election,” said Freemuse Executive Director Dr Srirak Plipat, “the Belarusian authorities have the responsibility to respect free speech and the right to protest including of artists and those challenging the election process and result.”
Artistic freedom has been caught in the crossfires of this increasingly oppressive regime and violent response, with Freemuse research indicating dozens of arrests of artists and activists both in the lead up to and after the recent election. This includes the arrests (and since release) of two theatre directors from Belarus Free Theatre – Svetlana Sugako and Nadezhda Brodskaya – and the dismissal of theatre director Pavel Latushko for his support of the protests. Freemuse is concerned at the increase of these incidents, and the already fragile climate for freedom of expression prior to the country’s election, which has since dramatically deteriorated.
The climate for artistic freedom in Belarus has been steadily decreasing, with political pressure and legislative action creating a shrinking environment for expression and engagement with arts and culture. Decree No. 257 ‘On Certain Issues of Organizing and Holding Cultural and Spectacular Events’ has limited public access to cultural events and led to the embedding of politics in the independent media and the culture sector. In addition, state control over many forms of LGBTI expression has been particularly repressive, in particular since the adoption in May 2016 of a bill to protect children from “information harmful for their health and development”. This includes provisions which can be used to restrict the dissemination of information on LGBTI topics.
President Lukashenko has served as president since 1994 and under his leadership freedom of expression has been restricted through the overarching control that he holds over politics and society. This state control includes the 2018 restrictions on independent online media whereby the parliament passed legislation that prosecutes those considered to be spreading false information online. The government also secured a state monopoly over information on social, political and economic affairs through the 2008 media law, thus limiting the space for civil society to perform and engage in Belarus.
Freemuse joins Belarus Free Theatre’s call to ensure freedom of artistic expression in Belarus – a right that is ensured under the country’s international human rights obligations.