by Iryna Vidanava
A hip high-tech happening in Minsk is the latest example of young Belarusians pushing the envelope.
Young Belarusians are hooked on the Internet. In a recent survey, students cited virtual activities as second in popularity only to going to discos, clubs, and movies. While most young Internet users in Belarus go online mostly to seek entertainment, they can hardly avoid the news and other information posted on Belarusian web portals. While Belarus lags behind the West in most technological trends, the Internet is not one of them. According to a 2008 study by Gemius, a leading online research agency in Central and Eastern Europe, a third of Belarusians use the Internet regularly; 53 percent of this group is under 25 years old and another 23 percent is made up of 25- to 34-year-olds. According to official statistics, in 2000 there were only two computers per 100 families; by 2007 the number had jumped to 26. For families with children younger than 18, the figure rises to 40.
BarCamps are open, self-organized, participatory workshop-conferences whose content is provided by bloggers and others active in new media. Since the first BarCamp in California four years ago, similar events have been held by Internet fanatics in more than 350 cities on six continents. When this free-form, user-generated happening unexpectedly made its way to Minsk last month, it marked a first for Belarus. That it happened at all was remarkable.
Since 1996, the regime has done everything it could to monopolize its control over sources of information. International human rights organizations rank Belarus near the bottom of just about every media freedom index. Unsanctioned events are criminal offenses and punishable by jail time. Over the last four years, 1,000 young Belarusians have been detained, arrested, imprisoned, expelled from studies, fired from jobs, and drafted into the military for their independent actions. Because authorities were able to marginalize independent broadcast and print media, the Internet has become one of the main platforms for public debate, especially for the country's young generation of digital natives.
In fact, for safety's sake, one of the planning sessions for the event was held in a forest. But in Belarus, youth are the most adroit, audacious, and creative part of civil society. The ByCamp was just the latest example of young Belarusians pushing the envelope of what is possible.
The idea came from several Belarusian bloggers who had attended BarCamps in Ukraine and Latvia; they were inspired by the free format and open atmosphere of the "non-conferences" and wanted to share their experiences with counterparts in their own country. In this spirit and despite the risk, an informal organizing committee of 20 or so young Belarusian journalists, bloggers, and new media practitioners decided to act openly, use their real names, and work in cooperation with official structures and local businesses. "Impossible" was the hasty verdict of many in the Belarusian new media world who preferred to remain in cyberspace rather than get involved in a real event. As Nata Isajevich, a student, blogger, and camp organizer, stated at the event's press conference, "We didn't expect that there would be so many skeptics among our blogger-friends. Unfortunately, criticizing everybody and everything without doing anything to change the situation is very common in the Belarusian blogosphere." The press conference was covered by independent media outlets, and when the ByCamp webpage was launched, hundreds of people registered to participate and the Belarusian Internet began buzzing about the event.
The skeptics may have been thinking of the brutal suppression of protests following the 2006 presidential election. Afterward, young activists retreated to various online communities. Like the kitchen, the refuge of their Soviet dissident parents, the Internet became a meeting place where young activists cooked up new forms of real-world resistance like flash mobs, campaigns to assist repressed youth, and other forms of cyber-assisted activism. Belarusian LiveJournal users on the Minsk_by site played a key role in organizing actions and had a clearly defined pro-democratic profile. While it has grown more popular since then, counting more than 4,000 members today, the group has lost its pro-democratic edge. Online activism has devolved to smaller groups that unite people sharing similar interests and values. This development of the By Net (the commonly used phrase to describe the Belarusian Internet community) as well as the absence of any major protests over the last couple of years in Belarus, have made many experts skeptical about the potential of the Internet to be a major tool for self-organizing and democratization. Some experts have argued that the proliferation of "new media" actually reduces activism by allowing users to connect and interact without ever leaving home or coming together. But the December event, organized by and for active Belarusian Internet users, proved the opposite.
NO SUMMER CAMP
In the jargon, BarCamps, which are named for the computer science term "foobar," bring together creators and consumers of new technologies. The "creators" tend to be highly skilled students and young professionals who oversee online media and information ventures. The "consumers" are usually young amateurs who dabble in cyberspace but want to learn and do more. Yet it would be a mistake to conclude that such meetings are only about technology and networking among Internet geeks. The February 2008 BridgeCamp in Riga included a focus on educating activists about better use of Internet-based technologies, as well as activists explaining their efforts to techies. One of the objectives of the June 2008 BarCamp in Tbilisi was to build bonds between new media and civil society activists from Armenia and Azerbaijan. The December 2008 SocialCamp in Kyiv was meant to demonstrate how new media can be better used by civil society groups. Other BarCamps have concentrated on new media and education, business, and the environment.
Because of ByCamp's independent nature and linking of new media with civic activism, it was a real question whether the planners would actually be able to hold the event in Belarus. The core team included young new media workers from Belarus who brought years of accumulated managerial and international experience, as well as inexperienced but enthusiastic bloggers. Finding an appropriate venue, gathering sponsors, and educating the Internet and business communities about the event's unusual format were only a few of a long list of challenges facing the organizers.
Somehow, they pulled it off. By thinking differently, taking risks, and being lucky, the organizers managed to make the ByCamp happen. When the rental costs of Minsk's few conference centers proved too high and the administrations of several universities got cold feet, the organizers approached Alexander Grodiushko, vice dean of the Institute of Journalism at Belarusian State University, for a venue. Grodiushko, a veteran of BarCamps in Kyiv, not only agreed to the request but showed up at the ByCamp wearing an "I'm a blogger" T-shirt. ByCampers were allowed to take over two floors of the state's main boot camp for future journalists.
When it became clear that no Belarusian company would risk being the main sponsor of an unsanctioned event, organizers approached the Russian office of Opera Software, a Norwegian maker of web and mobile browsers. Opera finally decided to support the event two days before it was to open.
Finally, the organizers timed the event well. It took place midway through the six-month "dialogue period" between Europe and Belarus. The isolated country's growing economic problems have pushed the regime to allow a certain degree of internal liberalization in the hope obtaining better international relations and support. The EU is requiring that Belarus ensure greater freedom of expression for the media, reform its electoral legislation, improve conditions for nongovernmental organizations, guarantee freedom of assembly and political association, and refrain from holding political prisoners. Since the dialogue opened in October, authorities have allowed two independent newspapers to resume sales and distribution through state channels and this week announced that online media would not be required to have official registration under a new media law.
Despite the skepticism regarding the event, even the ByCamp's hard-core critics showed up to see what would happen. I was among the more than 200 people who attended, including several bloggers from Ukraine. Doubters were won over by the event's "Open Grid" approach, unlike anything seen before in Belarus: presentations scheduled by anyone who wished to do so, workshops taking place simultaneously in multiple rooms, nonstop free coffee and information points, large concentrations of young people with laptops and cameras, spontaneous discussions and networking.
Unlike most events organized by youth organizations in Belarus that tend to bring together a few dozen close collaborators, the ByCamp attracted a crowd of participants from a broad range of youth communities, as well as individual activists who'd never met one another outside of cyberspace. Like other BarCamps, it attracted media and high-tech professionals together with bloggers and amateur enthusiasts. The event did include purely technical sessions on RSS, Web 2.0, software, Internet security, and streaming video. But the more than 30 presentations also included discussions on civic aspects of media and the Internet, including multimedia magazine publishing, so-called citizen journalism, and civic activism through blogging. Some of the participants were from key new media entities that are active in informing and fostering activism among youth, such as Generation.BY, itv.by, and the website of European Radio for Belarus. Some interesting partnerships emerged from the coffee networking breaks, such as an offer from the leading Belarusian portal, TUT.BY, to cooperate with an independent online radio station, Your Style, run by a Grodno NGO.
SEED OF CHANGE
It was, of course, impossible to completely avoid Belarusian realities. The day before the ByCamp opened, Atlant Telecom, the provider lined up to sponsor Internet access during the camp, said it could not provide a wireless connection. As a result, the Internet was available in only one spot. No one was sure whether the almost-new Institute of Journalism building really had bad phone lines or if the company got cold feet.
Unfortunately, beyond a few who wandered in after hearing that "something cool was happening on the fourth floor," few journalism students were interested or brave enough to take part in the event, despite the ByCamp posters scattered throughout the institute. The camp was well-attended by representatives of online media, but only a couple of traditional media people and democratic activists were present. In Belarus, deep divisions remain between youthful new media people and the older, traditional democratic opposition of NGOs, political parties, and trade unions. The ByCamp could have been the perfect place to bring together new and traditional media, the civic and business sectors, and nonpolitical and pro-democratic activists, but for this to happen both sides would've had to have been more open-minded. But this was only Belarus' first BarCamp; perhaps those that follow will break down such barriers.
The event confirmed that Belarusian bloggers are integrated into the global Internet community and are keeping pace with advanced trends. It offered an open challenge to the new media law that is slated to come into force next month. Although the mandatory state registration requirement that applies to newspapers has been dropped for the Internet, there is talk now of "voluntary registration" of online media. Finally, Revolution, a song written about the 2006 protests over Lukashenka's reelection and performed by the Belarusian alternative rock group Band A at the event's after-party, became the ByCamp unofficial anthem. The connection between the conference atmosphere and the song lyrics, and between political and technological change, was not lost on the young Belarusians present.