How fear of surveillance is forcing activists to hide from public life in Belarus

By Joshua Franco, Technology and Human Rights Researcher at Amnesty International

“In principle if I am talking indoors, or on the phone, or writing emails, I assume it all gets to the KGB(Belarus state security). So I don’t worry about it, I talk openly and say only what I would say if there were a KGB agent sitting next to me.”

This is what an activist in Belarus told me when I asked them about the reality of living with the threat of surveillance.

I had travelled there to see for myself whether the human rights situation had improved after a huge crackdown on activists in 2010, and what role surveillance played in this, for a new Amnesty International report on this subject. I was surprised at first how many of my conversations with activists started out with people telling me they had “nothing to hide,” and were doing “nothing illegal.”

But if many of these activists had been arrested or imprisoned merely for speaking out against the government, or for protesting. Did they really feel they had nothing to hide?

As I spoke to more people, the answer revealed itself to be more complex. Activists told me they never discussed finances for their organizations on the phone, that they used code names for people and places and that they suspected their homes or even offices were bugged.

One human rights defender told me that, due to the fear of bugging, her office was “not a place for serious conversations”. I couldn’t help smiling and noting that we were meeting in her office when she said this. But she replied that speaking to Amnesty International was luckily not illegal.

This offered an insight. Speaking openly – having nothing to hide – had a lot to do with knowing what was safe to speak about, and what had to be hidden.

The activists I spoke to were in engaging in self-censorship as a key strategy for self-preservation. In order to live full-time with the risk of surveillance, they had to know what subjects could be discussed openly. Activists behave as if the KGB are constantly in the room with them.

Serious conversations

I was curious what topics activists considered to be the most sensitive. Most often, these had to do with planning public events or protests, or discussing financing or membership of their organizations. In Belarus, acting on behalf of an unregistered NGO, or attending a peaceful, but unauthorized protest, can lead to criminal prosecution, even if these are rights guaranteed under international law.

To discuss these topics, activists told me they had to communicate using encrypted or other secure means and tried to protect their anonymity. And this was only when electronic communication was unavoidable, such as with foreign donors. Preferably, such topics would only be discussed face-to-face, and without mobile phones that could record locations or conversations. 

They could not speak in public spaces. They told me they might be watched, and that cafés are not considered secure, an impression given credibility recently when several opposition politicians discovered a listening device in the napkin holder which a waiter came to put at their table at a Minsk café.

Activists have learned to deal with these threats. Digital security training is increasingly popular, and most activists I met knew how to encrypt their data. 

But what is the cost of all this security for activists and their organisations in Belarus? The need to constantly hide information makes it almost impossible for them to operate. For example, if letting people know about an unauthorized protest can lead to prosecution, how can activists organize a protest of any size? It means the government no longer needs to arrest and jail its critics because dissent can also be silenced by the mere threat of surveillance.

As one activist put it: “If you protect all your information, you can’t reach anybody… It’s not easy. It doesn’t help our work at all. It makes our work much more ineffective. I hate all this security… [our organization] will disappear, become just like a secret group.”

Invisible constraints

Make no mistake, activism in Belarus is far from dead. While many opposition leaders and others went into exile following the 2010 crackdown, there are still many brave human rights defenders, journalists, lawyers and others doing incredible work under difficult circumstances to keep government power in check and speak up on behalf of victims of human rights abuses.

Nor have the arrests ceased. Independent news sites report a steady stream of activists being questioned, arrested or prosecuted for participating in protests. In but one example among many, the activist Pavel Vinahradau was recently arbitrarily sentenced to six months of “preventive supervision” (essentially a form of house arrest) on the basis of having participated in peaceful protests.

But while activism continues, there is little question that much more would be possible without the constant threat of surveillance.

The authorities have set up a system that flies in the face of international standards. They are able to subject just about anyone to surveillance for a host of overly broad legal reasons, subject to no independent oversight, and entirely shrouded in secrecy.

In this way, a foreigner who visits Minsk might take in the seemingly calm appearance of the city and come away thinking the human rights situation had changed. But listening to activists who operate in this context, it becomes clear that beneath the surface, the invisible but constant threat of surveillance is keeping civil society in check. The spread of the internet and mobile phones in Belarus has not brought an increase in freedom for activists, but rather placed them under even tighter constraints.

As an activist put it: “many things would be simpler [without the threat of surveillance]. It’s quite difficult, if you need to discuss some issue you need to meet with the person. So it’s the 21st century but we still have to meet face-to-face as in the 90s.”

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Joshua Franco is the Technology and Human Rights Researcher at Amnesty International. Follow Josh on Twitter @joshyrama