When doing nothing is free expression

In 2011, the Belarusian police arrested scores of people at a silent protest in Minsk. Annabelle Chapman looks at the case.

The case

On 20 July 2011 many people assembled publicly in Minsk, Belarus. The gathering had been coordinated by social media, to protest against Belarus’s authoritarian regime and growing economic hardship. There were no banners or slogans to be seen. The “silent protest” was one of the imaginative new ways that Belarusians have found to express their dissatisfaction, in an environment where any opposition is repressed. Others include gatherings where people clap or make their mobile phone alarms ring together.

On 20 July 2011, the police dispersed the gathering and arrested many people. In response to these events, the Belarusian Parliament amended the law on mass events. The new law, adopted on 3 October 2011, prohibits the pre-planned “joint mass presence of citizens for the purpose of […] action or inaction” [italics added] that is “a form of public expression of the public or political sentiments or protest”. In June and July that year, over 500 people in Belarus received sentences of between five and 15 days’ imprisonment for involvement in these gatherings.

Author opinion

The new law further reduces Belarusians’ freedom of speech, which is already severely limited through government censorship and bans on protests. By using innocent actions like strolling or clapping, these “silent protests” were a symbolic way for the public to express their dissatisfaction, even in this authoritarian environment. When a group of people gather like this, it is difficult to tell who is protesting, and who is simply a bystander.

The new law seems absurd, but it also has dangerous practical implications. It allows the police to arrest almost anybody, since the criteria for being “guilty” are extremely vague. The government is so determined to weaken opposition that it becomes suspicious of every public action. Even sitting in the city centre enjoying the good weather becomes a form of free expression.

- Annabelle Chapman

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Free Speech Debate is a research project of the Dahrendorf Programme for the Study of Freedom at St Antony's College in the University of Oxford. www.freespeechdebate.ox.ac.uk

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