Holding the Front line

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Holding the Front line

Note to visiting journalist. When in Belarus spare a thought for the hundreds of Belarusian journalists who have spent the past two decades struggling to keep the flame of independent journalism alive in an environment of relentless repression.

Whenever possible, make contact, and make use of them. There are hundreds of journalists across the country ready to meet and assist you in getting your story, following up your leads, securing interviews, who’ll point you in the right direction and be generally ready to give you a steer on what’s really happening in the country.

Belarus is not, as some would have it, an information black hole akin to North Korea or a relic of Stalinist Soviet Union lost in time. On the contrary, there is a vibrant community of journalists and activists committed to the daily struggle of getting the alternative news published, broadcast and generally out there for their public. Yes, they are up against it. Government censors monitor and regularly fine papers that overstep the line, officials refuse non-state journalists interviews or access to press conferences, often the bread and butter of daily reporting and heavy handed police officers welcome any excuse to manhandle uppity reporters who get too close to a good story. The private media, denied access to state advertising or national printing and distribution systems and working in constant threat of imminent closure or the next extortionate fine are kept alive by the regime on the condition that they remain in a semi vegetative state. Hundreds of journalists have spent time behind bars, mostly on 15 day administrative detentions, for being present at public demonstrations that annoy the authorities. Most notoriously, up to thirty journalists were beaten and up to 15 found themselves jailed as part of the post December 2010 election clampdown.

Belarus can be a very dark place for aspiring journalists, and those who do stand up to be counted do so knowing the risks that they run for themselves and their families each and every day. But where there is adversity there is also resistance, courage, character, tremendous sense of solidarity and great humour.

The best place to start looking for contacts is through the Belarusian Association of Journalists. The BAJ is the heart and soul of the independent journalists’ community having spent the last 17 years holding the frontline against the tide of authoritarianism. They have successfully carved out a space in which journalists can operate and discover how, despite the enormous obstacles, they can still use their skills and profession to make a real difference to the communities around them. BAJ’s record for staring oppression in the face, for rallying their members in the bleakest of moments, and for standing up for their colleagues, their profession and their rights, is second to none.  

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) has had the privilege of BAJ in membership since 1997 and the fortune to work closely and regularly with them since 2004, training young leaders, developing campaigns and communications strategies, lobbying international institutions, denouncing the conditions they operate in and the crimes committed against them, and raising the profile of Belarus journalism across Europe.

Today, however, they are under more pressure than ever before. The government, desperate to regain command of a collapsing economy is clearly stung by the strength of public protests and growing confidence of democratic voices. These are unstable and uncertain times, when anyone seen as a challenge or threat can become a likely target. BAJ has been the victim of a government propaganda campaign, while its leading members are subjected to ever greater scrutiny. Despite that, we believe that BAJ will remain strong and bold, a beacon for its members across the country. That has been their main role for the past two decades and their greatest challenges and victories may be just ahead of them.

And whether they are in the midst of a confrontation with the authorities, or conducting morale boosting tours and team building workshops with their members in the more unlikely parts of the country, BAJ journalists are always ready to provide assistance and support to visiting journalists. Because contacting, building networks and communicating their stories to as broad a public as possible is essential for them, for their members and for the people of Belarus.

We urge all journalists visiting Belarus to contact the community of independent journalists both as a mark of solidarity with our colleagues, but also to improve your ability to get and report the real story behind the rhetoric. 

 

Oliver Money-Kyrle

Assistant General Secretary of the International Federation of Journalists

Author: Handbook on Belarus for International journalists

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