"Working in Belarus less problematic than you might expect"

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"Working in Belarus less problematic than you might expect"

Gulliver Cragg, UK, journalist for France 24. Now based in Kiev. 

My main impression of working in Belarus is that it is less problematic than you might expect. A dictatorship it may be, but even a dictatorship has ministries, staffed by civil servants many of whom are intelligent, helpful and English-speaking - and not necessarily fans of Aleksandr Lukashenko either, though it’s perhaps best not to ask them that!

Of course, procedure is such that in order to get your accreditation (or once accredited, to get an interview with a particular person or permission to film at a particular place), you need to ask some time in advance and send your request in writing with the signature of an editor-in-chief on it, but that does not mean it cannot be done. In fact the foreign ministry has at times fast-tracked my application when I wanted to come urgently.
As for day-to-day working, you have to be prepared to have your accreditation checked by the police at regular intervals. In my case, they have always done this politely and let me get on with my work afterwards.
I say all this with a degree of hesitation, though, because I think I’ve been lucky - and also perhaps the media I represent (French TV and radio) are not so influential as to be subject to close monitoring by the Belarusian authorities. Having said that I have had the impression that my phone is being tapped at times - it takes ages to connect and then the line is oddly muffled - but that could just be paranoia.
I have heard of camera crews being detained and equipment or recordings destroyed, and sometimes these were accredited journalists. More often, though, such stories, if they concerned foreign journalists at all, concerned those who did not have accreditation, but entered the country on tourist visas. But the situation is definitely much easier for foreign journalists than for independent Belarusian journalists.
So my advice would be to absolutely play by the rules, act innocent, and presume that the police will treat you nicely until you see any evidence to the contrary. But also, if filming, change your tapes or cards often in case they try to delete something.
Finally, when meeting with people opposed to the regime, remember that any fears that they may have of being persecuted could be well grounded, so double check what is and isn’t OK in terms of quoting people, showing them in pictures and video etc. If someone doesn’t want to be filmed, don’t film them. Also if someone tells you something and then thinks better of it and asks not to be quoted, respect their wishes.

Author: Handbook on Belarus for International journalists