Teddybears over Belarus

It’s Europe’s last dictatorship, run for almost two decades by Alexander Lukashenka. No free media, opposition leaders in prison (and often beaten), leader cult surrounding the dictator… simply put, it bears all the hallmarks of an authoritarian regime. I’m talking of course of Belarus, native country of the writer Evgeny Morozov whom I focused the two latest blog posts on.

At the recent Gothenburg book fair (see separate story), I met the poet and opposition leader Uladzimir Njakljajeu, who was assaulted and beaten severely on election night 2010, than kidnapped from the intensive care ward of the hospital and ended up in prison for two and a half years, found guilty of “organising riots”. Only in July this year was he released from his imprisonment.  Or as Uladzimir Njakljajeu put it himself: “transferred from his cell to the general ward where all of Belarus is held”.

A different perspective on freedom of speech in Belarus was introduced by guerilla marketing agency Studio Total, who flew a single-engine airplane on low altitude and para-dropped thousands of teddybears(!) on the outskirts of Belarusian capital Minsk, each holding a card with a freedom of speech-message. They managed to escape from Belarusian airspace unnoticed by the airforce. To the further humiliation of dictator Lukashenka, there existed an agreement with Russia that Belarus guarantee the integrity of this particular part of the border (so Russia can focus its military attention elsewhere). Not only did the teddybear paradrop bring a message of democracy to Belarus’s citizens, it also got their dictator in trouble with the powerful next-door neighbour. Lukashenko requested Studio Total’s presence in Minsk for questioning, but they responded by inviting him to Sweden – an invite he did not accept, instead he declared the Swedish ambassador Stefan Eriksson persona non grata.

“What has this got to do with Netopia?”, you ask. First of all, the idea of freedom of expression is too often abused in relation to digital networks. These examples remind us of what it really means. Also, there is sometimes an expectation that digital communications like mobile phones and internet have the potential to bring democracy. But in the case of Belarus, Sweden’s main telecom carrier TeliaSonera (part-owned by the Swedish state) operated the main telecom network and worked closely with the Belarusian security service to monitor dissidents. Which was the main point of Evgeny Morozov’s first book: The Net Delusion (Penguin, 2011) – free information does not mean free people, and the tech companies’ first loyalty will always be to the share-holders rather than democratic ideals. These examples from his native country proves him right.