During a debate on the state of siege in the National Assembly in Paris on 11 September 1848, Victor Hugo spoke out against closing newspapers. “The principle of freedom of the press is no less essential and no less sacred than the principle of universal suffrage,” Hugo said. “The two are inseparable and complement each other. Freedom of the press, alongside universal suffrage, means the thought of all people enlightening the government of all people. Undermining one undermines the other.”
When the peoples of the world demand respect for their rights as citizens, they demand an honest portrayal of reality along with honest elections. They know that freedom of the press is the freedom that allows them to verify the existence of all the other freedoms. As the demonstrators in Minsk said: “Journalists are not criminals.” Alexander Lukashenko’s government is unfortunately trying to hide reality behind Potemkin stage sets.
In Belarus, ranked 153rd out of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), TV channels were already under the regime’s exclusive control. Arrests of non-aligned journalists and media censorship are common repressive tools. In response to the recent freedom demonstrations, the authorities have become more brutal, with mass roundups, harassment and torture. More than 80 journalists have again been targeted by the authorities in the past two weeks.
Foreign media outlets are being stripped of their accreditation and many have been expelled. The regime does not hesitate to block access to dozens of news websites or even to disconnect all Internet access. It also prevents the printing and distribution of independent newspapers. It would like to replace protests and debate with an “information vacuum” and a vast silence. We do not wish to see the return of the silence of dictatorships, what the great Polish reporter Ryszard Kapuscinski called, “that silence that is the mark of misfortune and often of crime.”
This is why we urge the United Nations General Assembly to send an observer mission to look into the abuses against journalists. Why we urge the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to include freedom of the press as a priority issue in its proposed mediation in the crisis. And why we urge the Commonwealth of Independent States to scrap plans for Belarus to take over its presidency in 2021 unless it ends violence against the media.
Finally, we also urge all countries that are well disposed towards Belarus and its people to provide a welcome to all persecuted Belarusian journalists who cannot continue working there for the time being. One of us, Svetlana Alexievich, once said: “Freedom is a long and difficult task.” Long or not, this difficult task now requires the international community’s solidarity.
Published in the 10 September print edition of the Le Monde, the French version of this opinion piece can be read on Le Monde website here.