How to find information sources in Belarus?

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How to find information sources in Belarus?

The village shop is the best source of inside information, pensioners are the most willing to talk, if a government official does not respond to your request, ask people around them. Insights from Belarusian journalists and editors about how to find information sources in Belarus.

How open is the average Belarusian and are they willing to talk to journalists in the street? What do you need to know if you want to conduct a street survey?

Alena Shalayeva, Tut.by, editor: We’ve got a programme called “People Speaking”. This is a daily survey filmed in the streets in which passers-by answer certain questions. If the question concerns their everyday life, people are willing to answer. They take off their sunglasses and might even introduce themselves, although no one insists that they do so. They answer enthusiastically. If a question is complex, of a political nature, you can see that a person would perhaps like to say something, but he or she kind of turns away and talks over their shoulder. Most likely, they are frightened.

How can you obtain information from a public official in Belarus?

Aliaksandr Klaskouski, Belapan information agency, journalist and political analyst:  As it happens, there is a law, On Mass Media [that states a government official is obliged to respond to questions from journalists within 30 days], but often, if an official does not want to talk, he or she will not. De facto he or she will not get punished for that, although Lukashenko has frequently said, and even forced officials to talk to mass media and has talked about the authorities’ policy. It all depends on the official and, to some extent, on the journalist. If a journalist is able to establish contact and is trustworthy, then he or she is more likely to obtain a commentary. Perhaps media that are too radical scare the officials off. Seeing certain mass media brands, an official starts wondering whether there is a chance they are going to make a fool out of him or her.

Yuliya Slutskaya, Solidarity with Belarus Information Office, director:  In Belarus, a journalist from a Western publication is often more trusted than one from Belarusian media. This could be a legacy of the past. There is some kind of reverence in front of a Western media representative. People who are not afraid are eager to respond to a Western journalist. This is true both for the average person, as well as for government officials. We saw this, for example, in EuroRadio (European Radio for Belarus) – a brand which perhaps wasn’t the most successful from the point of view of Belarusian media worked really well when asking government officials questions. Most officials answered questions from EuroRadio journalists.  

Can you just call and obtain an interview by phone?

AK: It all depends on the official’s attitude. If they have a positive outlook, then they will answer the questions by phone. If a certain question or a specific mass media brand causes doubts, they will say: please give a written request in due order, and this is, of course, hopeless.

As Tut.by’s experience shows, this is exactly how it happens in practice:

AS: Yes, it’s the same case with us, especially in some ministries when you need to know who you can contact. Despite the fact that our portal is a social, not a political one, officials are usually afraid of everything. If there is someone above him or her, he or she is afraid to answer and ask to send a written request. A request should be considered within 30 days, so every week or every 5 days the journalist would have to annoy this official asking whether he or she has considered the request. As each request has an official number, it has to be answered. However, in 70% of cases the reply is “Provision of this information has been denied”. They may explain it by saying: “we do not consider this to be a relevant issue” or “access to this information is prohibited for the mass media”.

Screenshot by Euroradio

YS: But often you need to look for information among people close to government officials. When I was at Komsomolskaya Pravda v Belarusi, that’s how we found out about the transfer of Lukashenko’s oldest son, Viktor, to the military enterprise Almaz. This research and defence company was involved in the production and trade of weapons.  Of course none of the government officials commented on this, but our journalists started to call around all the departments. They quickly found out his position and what he was responsible for.

Who can you contact to access representatives of certain professions (teachers, accountants, builders, etc.)?

AK: Even if a foreign journalist has accreditation, and can freely talk to people, all the same he needs to consider that at enterprises and the like they will check what places he or she is going to visit and warn the employees against saying too much etc. But as far as I know, foreign journalists have no illusions, they understand where they are going and try to talk to their colleagues, for instance, in a café, and learn about the situation from local journalists.

And how do Belarusian journalists obtain such information?

AS: Similar to how we do from the authorities. If we need a particular teacher, he or she is unlikely to talk if he or she doesn’t trust the journalist, and we will have to contact the district education department in order to obtain permission. The district department will ask for the article to be submitted for approval, and there might be problems with it as they usually want to rewrite everything from the very start. As far as Tut.by is concerned, we usually get approval for specific quotations or issues that a journalist has doubts about.

But is it possible simply to approach a workman who is repairing the road and ask a question?

AS: Yes, if he says something, then it is our information. But usually he would get told off by his boss for that.

AK: In this case it might be useful to interview on the condition of anonymity, if we can guarantee that we will only publish his name, or will introduce him as a representative of a certain organization, and then he would agree.

Photo: Alexander Vasukovich for Global Journal 

In such a situation, isn’t it hard to film TV footage?

AK: Yes, yes. But as far as television is concerned, it all is owned by the state. In fact, there’s only Belsat that works illegally because it has no accreditation. If a person agrees to speak to Belsat, it means he or she has nothing to lose, as a rule it is an opposition activist or a person who is very much independent from the state. It might sound strange, but pensioners tend to speak more freely.

We’ve got a specific question from an Italian journalist who is looking for wives of migrant workers from East Belarus. Is there a way to find them?

AK: I think it’s very hard because the authorities have tried to get hold of these migrant workers. As far as I remember, the president once mentioned that those emigrants come here to use our services for free, and that a tax needs to be imposed on them, so that they would pay for medical services. It hasn’t been turned into practice, though. It’s a complex issue as migrants are good at hiding. Their wives are not fools either, they don’t want to be spotted and receive a bill for medical services. This rhetoric from the authorities about getting hold of people who do not pay taxes does not make it easy for the media to get in touch with this group.

Could you give any hints on how to reach these people?

AS: The only way is to carry out field research, go to such a village, a town, find these people and agree on an interview with them on the condition of anonymity. This is also how we look for people, through common citizens. Usually we call a shop in a village, because the shop assistant knows everything, or we look for another person who knows this place and might tell what is happening and where. Besides, people in the countryside are more open than in cities.

JS: I agree, it’s a good idea to simply call the village shop. You can ask them if they know anyone who was a witness to a certain event, if they know anyone who goes abroad to work etc. Often the shop assistant will go and find the person you want to talk to. The village shop is the centre of life. Also, if a Western journalist has a language barrier, it could be easier to for them to work with a Belarusian partner. You can find them via independent media, among young journalists. This can help them to better find their way and remove the language barrier.

Author: Handbook on Belarus for International journalists

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