Belarus: Cultural censorship as state policy

Keeping tight control over every sphere of social life is the general policy of the Belarusian authorities. This is true not only about politics, economy or media; arts and culture face censorship as well.


Music: to “black lists” and back

Rock music has always had social protest at its core. Belarusian state ideologists still keep this idea in mind. Lyrics written in the Belarusian language and popularity among opposition supporters are two features that can ensure a rock band gets in trouble.

The authorities of Belarus are not really inventive and sophisticated in the ways to silence the musicians they consider “harmful”. Unofficial “black lists” of rock bands and singers were introduced; they have not been openly public, but managers of radio stations or concert organisers and promoters are aware of them. No tracks of a “forbidden group” are broadcasted by FM-stations; no club organises a gig of a blacklisted artist, even if they know it will definitely be sold out.

During a press conference in January 2013 President Alexander Lukashenko publically asked the Head of his administration to provide him with this “black list” – suggesting there is not one.

“Believe me, I have never made any orders or requests to create any ‘black lists’ to restrict anyone from singing or dancing here. If someone pays such artists for them to heap dirt upon our country, I wish they sing to those who order such music. But I don’t know about any of these facts,” the country’s ruler told a journalist who asked the question.

“His will to get rid of ‘black lists’ might be genuine. We all got to the point when everybody wants to get rid of these black lists: musicians, audience, officials, even the president himself. But it is not easy to do, because the system is in place, and it is the system of fear that works autonomously; it is installed in the society so strongly that even Lukashenko himself barely controls it,” says Aleh Khamenka, a frontman of a famous Belarusian folk-rock band “Palac”.

He admits the situation changed a bit after the press conference in January. For instance, “Palac” was previously black-listed and had to perform under different names (e.g. “Khamenka and friends”) to be allowed on stage in Belarus; now they can openly organise concerts as “Palac” again.

But the “thaw” for rock musicians in Belarus has not been long. A new Presidential Decree, signed in June 2013, suggested an organiser of any concert must receive a special permission in a local Department of Ideology.

“De-facto, in many regions of the country such permissions were to be obtained even before the decree was signed. Now this method of censorship became law,” says Vital Supranovich, a musical producer.


Cinema “spoilt by censorship”

Production of most films in Belarus is funded by the state. But the question is whether anyone sees them.

“Quite a lot of movies are produced, but have you seen any of them? I doubt it. These movies are dull and not interesting for the audience, they are spoilt by existence of censorship. And state ideologists attempt to censor even films they do not fund, by putting pressure on production companies and trying to influence the content,” says Yury Khashchavatski, a Belarusian director, well-known for his documentaries about President Lukashenko and repressions against political opposition in Belarus.

Direct censorship is ensured by “professional propagandists”, who are appointed to manage cultural institutions. For instance, Uladzimir Zamiatalin, who used to be a chief ideologist of the Presidential Administration, was the CEO of Belarusfilm, the state cinema company of Belarus, for quite a long time.

“If you want to make a movie here, film something with a title like ‘Belarus is a country of true democracy’; thus you will be sure you are allowed to produce it without much interference,” says Khashchavatski.

Censorship goes far beyond production. Belarus has a special list of movies that are banned from distribution in the country. It used to be public, and was posted on the official website of the Ministry of Culture, but was deleted from there afterwards – “not to advertise those movies.” At the time it was public, the list included, for instance, Antichrist by Lars von Trier (that won a prize of the Cannes Film Festival) or movies by Tinto Brass.


Theatre: Online performances vs. censorship

Belarus Free Theatre is another example of how artistic freedom is restricted by the authorities of the country. Police officers are people who never miss its performances in Belarus: not because they are ardent theatre goers, but because they stop actors from performing.

“Every time the Free Theatre stages a play in Belarus, there come the police that stop the play. But this is just a visible part of restrictions; real repressions take place outside the stage. All our actors are fired from state theatres, expelled from universities; almost all of them were detained or arrested. We feel this pressure all the time,” says Nikolay Khalezin, the art director of Belarus Free Theatre.

He believes, the theatre is dangerous for the authorities, because it is independent and pays no attention to state censorship and demands from official propagandists. The price the BFT pays for this artistic freedom is harsh: the audience of their plays in Belarus is very limited; they can only stage small performances in tiny semi-clandestine premises they can find. Two of their new plays, Trash Cuisine and King Lear, that gathered huge audiences abroad, are impossible to stage in Belarus – not only because no theatre allows them in, but also because two of the actors were deported from the country in 2008 and are not allowed in.

“We have found new opportunities to present our work to Belarusian public. During Edinburgh Festival we organised live online broadcast of Trash Cuisine; it was on 22 August and it was Sunday, thus many Belarusians were able to watch our play from home,” says Nikolay Khalezin.

The idea worked. The first broadcast received 6,000 views, 85% of which were from Belarus. State censors in Belarus could do nothing about it.

According to Yury Khashchavatski, art helps to inform and educate people; it promotes real human values, rights and freedom – and this is exactly what irritates the authorities. They prefer ignorant citizens that are easier to rule, and they use censorship to prevent people from thinking and questioning the reality presented by official propaganda.

“Why are the authorities so afraid of independent artists? The answer is quite simple: Art is dangerous for the authoritarian regime, because it turns obedient population into real citizens,” says Khashchavatski.


Zmitser Yanenka, Index on Censorship