We developed ProtonMail and ProtonVPN to protect activists, dissidents, and journalists around the world. One such organization is Charter’97, the most popular independent news outlet in Belarus. We spoke with their award-winning editor-in-chief, Natalya Radina.
This holiday season, we are giving back to organizations from the ProtonMail community that are furthering our shared causes of online privacy and security. You can support Natalya’s work by directly donating to their organization (link below) or participating in the associated ProtonMail Lifetime account charity auction. You can reach Natalya at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Despite running one of Belarus’s most trusted news sites, Natalya Radina has not stepped foot in the country in over seven years. She runs and edits Charter’97 from just across the border in Poland, where she lives in exile. She does not say where she is in Poland because she still receives regular death threats from the Belarusian government, led by President Alexander Lukashenko, also known as “Europe’s Last Dictator.”
Radina’s willingness to honestly and fearlessly report on the corruption, human rights violations, and wrongdoings of the Belarusian government defines her life. It has earned her the respect of her peers and numerous awards, including the 2011 International Press Freedom Award from the Committee to Protect Journalists. It has also drawn the ire of the Lukashenko regime, put her life in danger, and forced her out of the country she loves.
Radina was forced to flee Belarus in 2011 after the contentious Belarusian presidential election in 2010. While Lukashenko had wielded autocratic power before, bringing TV stations, radio channels, and newspapers under state control, the run-up to the election saw his government take even more draconian measures. On Dec. 19, 2010, Lukashenko was re-elected to his fourth term as president in an election that experts called a farce. The day of the vote, state police beat and arrested several of Lukashenko’s rival presidential candidates. Two days after the election, Lukashenko turned his attention to his critics. The Belarus state security service, which still carries its Soviet-era name, the KGB, rounded up protesters, political opponents, and journalists, including Radina.
“I was arrested in the Charter’97 office while I was writing about brutal force used against our peaceful demonstration. All the journalists and volunteers who were in the office were also arrested. All of them were put in prison for 15 days, where they were pressured and intimidated,” Radina said.
The KGB held Radina in prison for two months. In the cells next to her were the former presidential candidates and their political teams. Abuse was rampant. The men were beaten and forced to stand naked in the bitter Belarusian cold. The women were chained in icy cells and treated like animals.
“They tried to break our will and our dignity,” she said.
Radina was kept in complete isolation in a cell without a toilet. Her access to water was restricted. “The warden admitted that they were doing it so that I couldn’t ever have children,” she said.
The government’s goal was to get those in prison to inform on others. Radina refused. After two months she was released, but the horrors she faced had not ended. The Lukashenko regime had charged her with four counts of “organization of mass disorder.” She faced a 15-year prison sentence.
Radina had reason to fear that the government would silence her, one way or another. On Sept. 3, 2010, only months before the presidential election, Charter’97’s co-founder, director, and Radina’s good friend, Aleh Byabenin, was found hanged in his summer home in Minsk. Byabenin had long been a target of the Lukashenko regime and his supporters. In 1997, unknown assailants abducted him and subjected him to a mock execution. After a brief investigation into the hanging, the authorities ruled it a probable suicide. Radina has never accepted this conclusion. She points to the fact that Byabenin had scars on his hands, indicating a struggle.
“I’m sure that a proper investigation will be made when the situation changes and we will find out who killed our friend,” she said.
But not even fearing for her life could drive her from Belarus. She only fled her country when the government began stationing KGB “supervisors” in independent media offices, making real reporting impossible.
“I couldn’t accept such a scenario,” Radina said. “Two months after I was released with the obligation not to leave the country, I fled Belarus on the eve of my trial. I couldn’t have worked while on ‘the short chain’ of the secret services.”
Since fleeing to Poland, Radina and Charter’97 have continued to speak truth to power and to reliably report on abuses perpetrated by the Belarusian government. It has not been easy. On Jan. 24 this year, the Belarusian authorities blocked access to charter97.org. Today, it is only accessible in Belarus through VPN services such as ProtonVPN. Before the government began its cyber blockade, Radina reported that the Charter’97 website had roughly 2.5 million unique users per month. The government’s censorship has brought that number down to a million, and yet it still remains the most popular independent Belarusian website.
“Belarusians are actively using VPNs, TOR, and anonymizers to bypass the blocking of Charter97.org … which is proof that Belarusians don’t believe in the propaganda of the dictator and want to get free information,” Radina said.
Despite the urgency of Charter’97’s mission, the site is facing hard times. There is much less financial aid available to independent media sites in Eastern Europe and other post-Soviet countries.
“Today, due to a sharp decrease in financing, the very functioning of the website Charter97.org is under threat,” she said.
Radina has vowed not to give up. Speaking with us over Skype, sitting in her small home in Poland, a land so close to the home she cannot return to, it is clear that Radina, despite the threats, the imprisonment, the loss of friends, and being driven from her home, will continue her tireless pursuit of the truth.
“It is very important that the Charter’97 team managed to survive, we didn’t compromise our conscience, and we didn’t break down,” she said. “We remained loyal to our ideals. It’s precious.”
ProtonMail has always been about community and our shared values. Whether it is challenging governments, educating the public, or training journalists, we are committed to supporting our community however we can. We believe it is critical that Natalya’s work continues, and you can donate to Charter’97 here.
You can also support Charter’97 by participating in one of our ProtonMail Lifetime account auctions. All of the funds raised will be donated to Charter’97. We will be contributing on top of the funds raised by the Proton community so that at least €10,000 is donated.
We’re proud to support Charter’97 and to defend security, privacy, and freedom on the Internet. As Natalya told us when we asked her why she started at Charter’97, “The only place where there is freedom of speech is the Internet.”
The ProtonMail Team
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