The Journalists of Belarus
Belarus is one of the most difficult countries in Europe for independent journalists to work in. Since the rigged presidential election in 2020, the journalists have been a target for the regime and at least 300 journalists have been forced into exile. Now they are struggling to cover the news in their homeland from a distance.
– I came here to Warsaw only with a small backpack. I didn’t even bring my computer, my camera or my hard drives because it was like a symbol of my return, says journalist Tanya Kapitonova.
In Stalin’s time, people used to say something like: ”We just need the guy and we will find a suitable article for him for later”. Maybe it’s the same thing in Belarus now. They can arrest you and then they find a charge. It’s not a problem for them.Alexander Yaroshevich, investigative journalist in exile in Vilnius, Lithuania.
Since 2020 Belarus has plummeted in Reporters Without Borders’ press freedom index. Journalists and bloggers critical of the regime are exposed to threats, violence and arrests. The Internet has been cut off and leading news sites have been blocked. Access to information is severely limited.
In other words, working as an independent journalist in Belarus has never been easy. But in connection with the 2020 election, it has become almost impossible. According to a report by Reporters Without Borders and the World Organization Against Torture, the Belarusian media corps is subject to systematic repression where censorship, fines, threats, revoked press accreditations, raids on both newsrooms and individual journalists’ homes, confiscation of equipment, arrests, extrajudicial trials and even torture have become part of everyday life.
After initially detaining arrested journalists for short periods, the authorities began handing out longer prison sentences in the autumn of 2020. The first victims of the new policy were journalists Daria Chultsova and Katsiaryna Andreyeva of the independent television channel Belsat TV. They were sentenced to two years in prison for broadcasting live during demonstrations. Andreyeva was later on also charged with treason and faces up to 15 years in prison.
The increasing repression has been made possible, among other things, with changes in the law that causes limitations for journalists’ trying to do their job. Among other things, in the mass media law, which for example makes it forbidden to livestream from unauthorized gatherings without permission, and in the law against extremist formations, which makes it forbidden to publish and distribute content that is considered to be extremist. Thus, independent media can be labeled as extremists and publicists and journalists can be sentenced to long prison terms.
But it is not only risky to work as an independent journalist in Belarus, it is also dangerous to read their reports. Anyone who, for example, follows an extremist-labeled Telegram- or Youtube-channel risks imprisonment.
– Any media may be labeled extremist and the authorities do not need a court decision to do so. Police and security services can do this by themselves and they do not always tell the reason for it. Being labeled an extremist media means that everyone who in any way actively participates or contributes to it is considered a criminal, says a journalist who, for security reasons, wants to remain anonymous.
Currently 28 journalists and media representatives are imprisoned in Belarus (april 2022). Several of those previously arrested testify to difficult conditions, such as overcrowded cells and mental and physical abuse.
One early morning on May 12, 2021, photographer and journalist Tanya Kapitonova covers a demonstration in central Minsk. A group of women dressed in symbolically white clothes and with white flowers in their hands have gathered in the square Kamaroŭski Market where 200 women, just over a year earlier, joined a manifestation against the violence of the regime.
– The protests had lasted for nine months, as long as it takes for a woman to go through a pregnancy and give birth to a child. It was such a symbolic date, says Tanya Kapitonova.
That many journalists are imprisoned in Belarus at the moment.
I came here to Warsaw only with a small backpack. I didn’t even bring my computer, my camera or my hard drives because it was like a symbol of my return. I will return.Journalist and photographer Tanya Kapitonova lives in exile in Warsaw, Poland.
There are not many independent journalists still working in Belarus, but they do exist. Exactly how many is hard to know as quite a few have gone underground and write anonymously. Some can continue openly but no longer report on topics that may provoke the regime or criticize those in power.
– All criticism can be regarded as extremism, even a small chat online, and it creates great problems for journalists who would like to speak up. The journalists working from inside the country have this situation of constant pressure. Sometimes they avoid reporting from certain events where they can be taken into custody. So unfortunately there are few voices from within the country that are heard but far from all are silent, says a journalist who wants to remain anonymous.
The journalists who remain in the country are forced to endure raids, arbitrary arrests, threats and violence from the security police. They also live with a constant fear that they or their loved ones will be subjected to reprisals because of their reporting. Many Belarusian journalists therefore see no other solution than leaving the country.
That day the police came to practically all my colleagues from Belsat in different cities around Belarus. I understood that it was a matter of hours, maybe less before they would come to me. Suddenly it became so clear that it was not a bad dream. It was for real. I took some clothes, my daughter’s passport and my own later on and we left the country. We traveled for two days in a row. The journey was extremely tough.The journalist Maria Gritz works for Belsat TV, classified as extremist. She lived in exile in Ukraine but due to the war she has been forced to flee again, this time to Poland.
LIFE IN EXILE – CHALLENGES AND POSSIBILITIES
What is the situation like for the independent journalists who have left Belarus and sought refuge in other countries? Where are they? What are the challenges, and how is journalism affected by the geographical distance?
Most of the 300 journalists who have left Belarus have settled in countries bordering their own. Most of them went to Poland, Ukraine and Lithuania – countries bordering Belarus. At the same time, the war in Ukraine has forced many journalists who had settled there to flee once again.
POLAND 38,4% (56 JOURNALISTS)
UKRAINE 22,6% (33)
LITHUANIA 15,8% (23)
GEORGIA 13% (19)
LATVIA 0,7 (1)
CZECH REPUBLIC 0,7 (1)
OTHER COUNTRIES 8,9% (13)
I worked as a photographer for twenty years. In Belarus I had a name, I was famous. Even if I lost my job at the editorial office where I worked, I would easy get a job elsewhere. Abroad, it is an impossible situation and an impossible task to find a job for the competition is so great.Vadim Zamirovski was forced to give up his job as a photographer after leaving Belarus.
EARNING ONES LIVING
According to a survey by the Belarusian Association of Journalists one of the challenges for journalists in exile is earning a living in the new country. 39 percent of the respondents listed job seeking as a major challenge. Likewise, the lack of a stable income.
The journalists often have to support not only themselves, but also the family in exile or in Belarus. The cost of living is rising as journalists have to restart from scratch.
– People here rent out their apartments unfurnished, so you have to buy everything and it is very expensive. The first night in our rental apartment, my daughter and I had no duvets when we went to sleep. Just my daughter’s little blanket. I was crying all night long because I felt like the most horrible mother in the world because this had been my choice. To put us in this situation, says Maria Gritz, who first lived in exile in Ukraine but was forced to flee again when the war broke out. She now lives in Warsaw, Poland.
The difficult financial situation means that journalists may initially be dependent on financial support, not least to finance new projects. But even if there is support to be had, not everyone knows how to apply for them.
– Most of these people are used to working in the newsroom and having an editor. To start a project on their own is not that easy for everyone. Even if there are possibilities to get access to financing you still have to go through all this paperwork and these are journalists and photographers who may never have done anything like this before. It is a completely new skill you have to learn and not everyone can do it, says Anton Trafimovich, an exile journalist in Warsaw, Poland.
The application process can also involve a security risk.
– First of all, few journalists know that the support exists, and secondly, some are scared that the administrative procedure will involve people from their home country who might get into trouble, or that the channels used for communication are not secure or that information will leak, says a journalist who wishes to remain anonymous.
Some of the journalists may continue to work for the Belarusian media that have moved their newsrooms abroad and for a Belarusian audience. Some journalists are still employed while others enter freelance life.
Tanya Kapitonova, who now lives in Warsaw in Poland, can continue to work for her newsroom from a distance, but now she has new tasks.
– In Belarus, I was creating content. Now I work as an editor and a proofreader. I read all the texts on our website, correct errors and I produce some material for the web. So I do not create anything myself so it feels a bit unusual. I miss the feeling of creating. But at the same time, it is fantastic not to have to worry about being arrested for doing my job, says Tanya Kapitonova.
And not everyone can continue to work as journalists in exile. Things like increased competition in a new labor market, language barriers, none or a limited social network and the fact that the editorial office you worked for has been forced to close down contributes to the difficulty to continue working as a journalist in exile.
Photographers and photojournalists are most vulnerable because they – unlike their writing colleagues – find it difficult to report on their home country from a distance. Some of them therefore have to change their profession.
– I can‘t go out and take photos, cover or make a report about Belarus when I am in Kyiv, says Vadim Zamirovski, who previously worked as a photographer in Minsk.
After many attempts to find a job as a photojournalist in Ukraine, where he moved after leaving Belarus, Vadim Zamirovski was forced to change his career and is now studying to become a motion designer.
– Despite the fact that I have many friends here in Kyiv and that I have tried in every possible way to find a job, I finally had to give up. I loved my job as a photographer. It’s not just a profession but a lifestyle, so for me it was emotionally difficult to change careers. But I have a family. I have a child to support, he says.
Vadim Zamirovski is one of the Belarusian journalists who sought refuge in Ukraine and has been forced to relocate due to the war. Vadim Zamirovski now lives in Vilnius, Litauen.
There are no statistics on how many exile journalists who have left the profession, but it is clear that there will be consequences since the situation in Belarus risks being under-monitored if the number of independent journalists decreases.
of respondents in the survey listed job seeking as a challenge.
The most important thing is to be able to stay legally in a country. It is the basic thing for being able to live a normal life.Vadim Zamirovski, exile journalist in Lituania.
52 percent of the participants in the Belarusian Association of Journalists’ survey from October 2021, stated that the process of visas and residence permits was a big challenge in going into exile.
– It was easier for me to get a residence permit in Poland because, like many other Belarusians, I have Polish roots. It is an advantage that a person with a Polish background can invoke, and that made it easier to get a residence permit, says Ruslan Kulevich, exile journalist in Poland.
Many exile journalists, who need to leave Belarus quickly choose to go to countries where Belarusian citizens do not need a visa and can apply for a residence permit later on. Different visa requirements apply in different countries. In Georgia, for instance, you can stay for a whole year without a visa, in Lithuania a visa is required from day one and in Ukraine a Belarusian citizen can stay for 180 days, after which he or she must leave the country for the same number of days.
Vadim Zamirovski believes that one should make it easier for the refugees from Belarus and share his experiences:
– I had a problem in Ukraine because I did not have an original letter from my editor which showed that I, as a journalist, applied for a residence permit. Since my editor was imprisoned in Belarus, she could not give it to me and I only had a digital copy. The Migration Agency did not want to accept it, says Vadim Zamirovski and continues:
– They did nothing wrong legally, but if you want to help Belarusian refugees, you have to be able to look past these trivialities and understand that the situation is unique.
Also cumbersome bureaucracy, language confusion, lack of information on which routines there are to apply for visa and residence permits can complicate and prolong the asylum process.
Several of the journalists testify that the asylum process creates an anxiety that takes time and effort and leaves no space to handle other practical matters that need to be addressed. It also becomes a mental obstacle in the process of integrating in a new country.
– On paper it is quite easy to get protection if you come to Ukraine, as it is a visa-free country, but in reality it is far more complicated. If you have not your legal status settled, you can not think seriously about working, says a journalist who wishes to remain anonymous.
of the respondents in the survey thought that the process of visas and residence permits was a challenge.
It was no coincidence that I moved here but a thoroughly considered decision. This city reminds me a lot of my hometown. Many Belarusians live here and since I have Polish roots, I know a little Polish. I understand and can make myself understood so I manage.Ruslan Kulevich, exile journalist in Poland.
Belarus has two official languages: Belarusian and Russian. Polish and Ukrainian are also spoken in the country. This may be one reason why exile journalists choose to settle in Ukraine, where a large part of the population speaks Russian, and in Poland.
At the same time, exile journalists state that language confusion leads to problems in the new country. 54 percent of the respondents in the Belarus Association of Journalists’s survey found it difficult to learn a new language or to improve existing language skills to a level that works.
Limited language skills may exclude journalists from the labor market. If they can´t speak English either the opportunities for cooperation with international employers will also be limited, says Ruslan Kulevich, exile journalist in Poland.
– You have to know how to speak English. In Lithuania, you manage in Russian. In Poland, those who come from Belarus and can speak Belarusian may be able to get along in Polish as the languages are closely related. But you can go no further without language skills. Germany, Sweden and other countries are not an option to those who don’t speak English. All doors are closed if you cannot communicate, he says.
Of respondents in the survey thought that language is a challenge.
After the plane with the blogger Raman Pratasevich was forced to make an emergency landing in Belarus, we have become much more wary in matters of personal safety. We don´t reveal where we live and stuff like that. You can easily get here by car and grab a person, put him in the trunk and leave the country without anyone noticing. So we are cautious.Ruslan Kulevich, exile journalist in Poland.
Several of the journalists interviewed in this report state that they feel safer and more free in their professional role in exile. Some feel that they can now publish their texts – even those critical of the regime – without fear of reprisals.
Throughout my career, I have written what I want so I try not to censor myself. If I want to be critical, I am. That’s how it is. Here in Warsaw, I do not think, like some others, that I should be afraid. If I were sitting here being afraid, what then would the people of Belarus do? That’s the main rule of my job, to call things by their proper names.Journalist Zmicier Mickiewicz, at Belsat TV, on the field.
Belarus is no longer a story about a place but a story about people. Belarus is now everywhere because we Belarusians are everywhere.Maria Gritz, exile journalist in Poland.
Life in exile can mean that families split up, either in the short or long term, which several of the interviewed journalists highlight as a problem. It’s not always economically possible for the whole family to join the journalist in exile.
If the exile journalist, furthermore, is the one who carries the main responsibility for supporting the family, financial problems also arise when he or she moves, for in the beginning the journalist usually has no or little income.
According to the survey conducted by the Belarusian Association of Journalists, 18 percent of the respondents said that finding ways to family relocation was a challenge. The fact that the family remains in Belarus entails a risk that they will be subjected to threats, extortion and retaliation, which could lead to self-censorship by the exiled journalist.
– My husband was very worried when my daughter and I left Belarus. He did not know where we were and during our journey I had no way of connecting with him. You should not contact your family when leaving the country as they can be detained. They can use your family to blackmail you to go back, says Maria Gritz.
of the respondents in the survey stated that finding ways to family relocation was a big challenge.
The greatest problem is being deprived of a daily context. Not being able to interact and meet the people who live in your own country, not being able to soak up the atmosphere, what is going on, what people are talking about. It creates some kind of artificial situation where you are alienated from reality. It is very difficult to work outside a context.Journalist Iryna Arakhovskaya lives in exile in Warsaw, Poland.
Several of the interviewed journalists say that it feels as if they have been deprived of a context. Some feel isolated, especially those who have left Belarus on their own and do not have their family or an editorial office to support them. They experience that it can be difficult to find a social context. 36 percent of those interviewed in the Belarusian Association of Journalists’ (BAJ) survey finds this challenging.
One of them is journalist Anton Trafimovich, who lives and works as a freelance journalist in the Polish capital Warsaw.
– What I lack here is the spirit of the newsrooms in Belarus. Because many newsrooms were raided and no longer exist, journalists come here on their own. And even if there is a network of journalists here, you are still on your own. There is a lack of a professional community, and thus support, he says.
In several of the countries where Belarusian journalists move, such as Poland and Lithuania, there is a large proportion of immigrant Belarusians, but despite this it can be difficult to find a place to meet other exile journalists, especially if you work as a freelance.
According to journalist Hanna Liubakova, who lives in Vilnius, Lithuania, such a context is a must to be able to settle in a new place and to establish collaborations.
– It would be good if there were some kind of media hubs for journalists where we could work, exchange information and create something together. It could lead to collaborations and make us stronger. Even though our newsrooms have been destroyed, we can still do something together, create new projects, says Hanna Liubakova.
Of the respondents in the survey consider the lack of a journalistic context as a challenge.
I think all Belarusians, especially journalists, are still experiencing trauma. It is hard to reset yourself even if you went abroad. We still dream about the protests, about the beating, about the police… We are still in the middle of this fight. That’s what makes it so hard, I think.Anton Trafimovich at his home office in Warsaw, Poland.
Several journalists also describe that they feel powerless facing the development in Belarus and guilt for leaving the country and their colleagues behind, something that consumes them. Exile journalist Tanya Kapitonova punished herself for a long time for having fled.
– I asked myself every day: Why did I leave? Was it because of paranoia or intuition? That was the most difficult thing for me. But finally, I understood that I should not victimize myself because it wouldn’t make anything better for me or my work.
Tanya Kapitonova felt that by leaving Belarus, she let her colleagues down and the fear of reprisals makes her, despite her being in Poland, afraid of being as critical as she would like.
– I try not to be this hero at the front line, the one who reveals the truth and is ready to do anything, because I can’t. I would like to say something but I’m not ready. I find myself in a situation where my voice is stolen once more.This constant feeling that I can do more but can’t manage it, it destroys me, says Tanya Kapitonova.
It is clear that the journalist’s experiences are leaving traces, both physically and mentally, and they are seeking medical and psychological help in exile to be able to move on.
At the same time, 38 percent of the respondents in the Belarusian Association of Journalists´ (BAJ) survey consider it difficult to find opportunities for medical care and rehabilitation, and 21 percent think it is a challenge to find psychological help.
Another important thing that they highlight is the opportunity to take a break from the, in many cases, heavy responsibility of everyday life in exile and gain strength to be able to continue working. This type of retreat for both exile journalists and those in Belarus is something that the Belarusian Association of Journalists has arranged.
– We photojournalists had a very nice experience at a residence for photographers near the Baltic Sea in Poland. For two days we worked on our photo archives and created new projects. I remember that it gave us strength, to breathe fresh air and look at the sea, and that it was very inspiring, says Tanya Kapitonova.
We do not have access to the field. We can not see what is happening with our own eyes, which was the very essence of my job when I worked in Belarus. It was my principle to be out in the field and talk to people in person and just write things that I myself witnessed. Now it’s impossible.Aliaksandra Dynko first lived in exile in Kyiv, Ukraine but has been forced to flee once more.
2021 The Year of The Defeat of the Media, forced relocation and Rising of Journalism from the Ashes
Last year the independent media in Belarus faced unprecedented repression. As a result of hundreds of searches and dozens of criminal cases, the majority of independent media outlets were smashed and closed. Over three dozen of our colleagues were forced into captivity and around 300 journalists had to leave Belarus.
Leading independent publications in the country have been declared extremist. This means that one can get a prison sentence simply for cooperation with the media and even for sharing a link with friends and family. The past year is best illustrated by the door to Radio Liberty’s office in Minsk, that was blown up by security forces during a search on the 16th of July 2021. Three of the paper’s staff are now in captivity and approximately another 23 journalists too.
But even after such a devastating campaign independent media have found the strength to resume their work. Hundreds of journalists, fleeing criminal prosecution, have gone abroad to restart their media outlets. Without the arrested editors. In difficult conditions and without access to the scene. With destroyed financial models and with physically and psychologically damaged reporters.
But Belarusian journalism lives on. Today it is published from Minsk, Warsaw, Vilnius, Tbilisi and many other cities and countries. People who have lost their home and have had to rebuild their lives. Yet they make heroic efforts to create truthful journalism of high quality and bring it to their audience despite bans and blockades.
We continue to believe that all this is not in vain and that one day we will be able to return to our homes. Unlike the security forces journalists do not use guns, handcuffs, stun guns or rubber truncheons. Our main strength is the truth and solidarity.
With deep respect and gratitude,
Barys Haretski, BAJ Deputy Chairman.
REPORTS WITHOUT BORDERS SWEDEN’S RECOMMENDATIONS
TO THE AUTHORITIES:
THE JOURNALISTS WISHES:
PERSONS INTERVIEWED FOR THIS REPORT:
Iryna Arakhovskaya, freelance journalist.
Aliaksandra Dynko, correspondent/Radio Liberty.
Maria Gritz, reporter Belsat News.
Tanya Kapitonova, photographer and journalist.
Ruslan Kulevich, journalist.
Hanna Liubakova, journalist and expert, Atlantic Council.
Natallia Lubneuskaja, reporter at newspaper Nasha Niva.
Zmicier Mickiewicz, reporter, Belsat TV.
Anton Trafimovich, freelance journalist
Alexander Yaroshevich, investigative journalist at Belsat TV.
Vadim Zamirovski, photojournalist.
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- Figures for three months crackdown press freedom in Belarus, Reporters Without Borders
- RSF unblocks three Belarusian websites censored during protests, Reporters Without Borders
- Many journalists arrested and foreign media stripped of accreditation, Reporters Without Borders
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