The Belarus non-file: Why the media silence on Europe’s last dictator?

Why do we hear so little about Europe's last dictator, the President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko?


Monday’s Newsnight saw the airing of an extremely rare interview with Europe’s last dictator, Alexander Lukashenko.

Evgeny Lebedev, the son of a Russian oligarch and owner of both the Evening Standard and Independent Print Limited, was the man lucky enough to interview the President of Belarus. Newsnight, which filmed the event, were invited only as observers and were unable to partake in the interview.

According to the BBC, Lebedev himself was only able to get this interview (which lasted for four hours) through his “personal connections”.

In a surprisingly cordial interview Lukashenko spoke enthusiastically about how what the people of Belarus really wanted was security, not some westernised conception of freedom.

Despite having a memory for detail, often about the west, when asked about the human rights atrocities committed under his watch, he seemed not to know what Lebedev was on about.

Recent protests were violently crushed, civil liberties are trampled over and journalists are detained.

Under a 1996 referendum Lukashenko is now empowered to appoint many senior positions, including the prime minister, giving him as immense amount of power. No election has been judged fair and free and in the most recent elections, not a single opposition member was elected.

Needless to say, Lukashenko is an unrepentant despot with no respect for human rights. Despite this figure of revilement, the coverage of this oppressive regime, when compared to other brutal tyrannies, is minimal.

This interview is the exception to the rule; we hear very little about Belarus in our media, but why is this?

In order to demonstrate how Belarus is under-reported, a comparison should be made. Zimbabwe is (very roughly) a comparable country in terms of human rights abuses and the pale pretence of democracy in place.

However, a cursory google news search for “Zimbabwe” offers 191,000 hits, whereas for “Belarus” it only returns 112,000. If the same test is done comparing “Robert Mugabe” and “Alexander Lukashenko” then the former returns 9,460 links and the latter 2,810.

The google trends charts also demonstrate the fluctuations and interest disparity in searches for “Zimbabwe and Belarus” and “Mugabe and Lukashenko”:

Although this research is far from conclusive, it does offer some insight. There are obviously limitations, but google statistics can and do indicate the level of disparity in awareness and attention between vile regimes.

This of course is true for all sorts of nations. Tunisia and Libya, for example, have massively disparate news coverage. “Libya” returns 42,200,000 links on google news whereas “Tunisia” returned 164,000. The reoccurrence of disparity leads us to the question of what makes a story ‘newsworthy’ (i.e. will a journalist be more likely to cover it).

There are obvious factors, therefore, separating coverage of different countries, but in the case of Belarus why is there so little coverage? Are there not enough deaths? Is it too complicated? Does it not fit into our post-Cold War world story? Is it not part of an ‘axis of evil’?

It is not the fact of media suppression that limits coverage in Belarus; both Zimbabwe and Belarus are wary of journalists, the former does not allow western journalists in the country (apart from John Simpson apparently); rather, it is the impact of some ‘news value’, another factor that limits coverage of Belarus.

We must do our best to ensure coverage of the evils that happen in our world, especially those that fall foul of uneven media coverage.

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by becoming a Left Foot Forward Supporter today.