2020.09.23 08:00

‘I prepared for prison’. Belarusian reporters quit state media

Benas Gerdžiūnas, LRT.lt2020.09.23 08:00

When the Belarusian state-owned newspaper refused to publish photos of the mass protests, Tatsiana Tkachova, winner of the prestigious World Press Photo competition, knew her time at Zvyazda was up.

Together with other reporters, she pleaded with the editor of one of the oldest and the last state-owned Belarusian-language newspapers – let us report on the mass demonstrations and the subsequent violent crackdown on protesters.

As a number of other high-profile Belarusian media figures were resigning in protest against Alexander Lukashenko’s regime, the authorities sensed revolt. The head of ideology of the regime, Olga Shpilevskaya, arrived to speak to the reporters at Zvyazda.

“She told us [...] this was an Orange Revolution,” one more in the series of ‘colour’ revolutions in post-Soviet countries that Russia sees as organised by the West. She also said that “we are being controlled, that we do not fully understand what is happening”, Tkachova recounted to LRT English by phone.

When one of her colleagues asked Shpilevskaya how they were to look people in the eye, she retorted – “then quit”.

The newsroom prepared an edition with images of protests and an appeal to stop the violence. Some of the material ended up on the newspaper's website.

According to Tkachova, chief editor Pavel Sukharukau agreed with the reporters and headed off to the Information Ministry where he presented their case. He quoted the law of mass media which calls for objective reporting. But the authorities rejected Sukharukau's arguments and he resigned. He was replaced by a former minister of information.

The next day, a newspaper was released as usual, without any mention of the violence, torture, or protests, that people were seeing with their own eyes on the streets, according to Tkachova.

Then, the pressure started to mount. Some journalists said they were threatened with firing and, ultimately, caved in. In the end, only four people, including Tkachova, ended up resigning from Zvyazda.

Not everybody at the newsroom was onboard with the initial sentiment. A political reporter accused Tkachova of trying to push her own ambitions. “I was shocked, I tried to explain to her what was happening in our country [and that] I would like to not be ashamed to [...] say that I work here.”

The person that accused her later wrote completely fabricated stories about Lukashenko confronting striking workers in state factories, according to Tkachova.

Working for state media

During the time at the newspaper, “I have [published] no materials that I would be ashamed of, but also no materials that I could be proud of”, said Tatsiana. The appeal to stop the violence – which is still available online – was “probably my best work at Zvyazda”, she added.

She had to grapple with her decision to work for a state-owned newspaper, when she joined Zyazda as a news photographer three years ago. “Not everyone can work at” and other independent outlets and people are forced to compromise, she said.

Tkachova had been unemployed for some time and faced a choice between working at the newspaper in Minsk or returning to her home village. In the end, she accepted the job.

“I have never done any propaganda materials and, during my three years of work there, I cannot remember a moment where I would have had to substitute reality,” said Tkachova.

She stayed away from politics and editors never interfered with her coverage of social topics – from gender violence to the plight of families and children.

‘I am free and they are not’

In September, she had to go into the office to hand in her press accreditation. The mood inside was eerie. “I was very glad to see my colleagues, but there was a very strange feeling, as if I was free, but they were not.“

“But if we all [supported each other] along the principle of one for all and all for one, then perhaps my colleagues and I wouldn’t have had to leave” and would be reporting on what was actually happening, said Tkachova. “Or we would all be fired, and it would be another splinter in this [regime].”

“All the materials that I managed to do about the strikes, videos and photo reports from the first big Freedom March, [a demonstration] which attracted around 200,000 people, everything was removed [from the website] when the new editor came.”

“And they continue to work, reflecting only the state's side,“ she said. “All political journalists in government media just rewrite press releases. I don't understand them.”

Replaced by Russian journalists?

After being elected in 1994, Lukashenko proceeded to dismantle or capture independent media, including Zvyazda, which used to attract talent and was a respected newspaper, according to Tkachova.

Belarusian TV reporters that quit in solidarity with the protesters after August 9 were promptly replaced by Russian specialists, according to reports by Belta. Lukashenko then effectively banned foreign media from entering and legally operating in the country and started claiming Belarus was in a “hybrid war” where the media were also a participant.

But Zvyazda “is the last newspaper where the authorities will hire Russian journalists, because it is not a strategically important newspaper”, especially as it is published in Belarusian, said Tkachova. “But in principle, anything is possible. A photographer appeared in my place the very next day.”

Now, without editorial censorship, she’s free to pursue the projects she wants. However, taking photographs without the state media umbrella will make her a target of the regime.

“I want to make a photo project – portraits of people who resigned from work in protest, and to put them on a map,” she said. “But if I carry out such a project, then I will probably have to leave the country.”

Now, the regime is searching for people “by Telegram, by phone numbers”, she said. “They figure you out, come [to your] home and take you away. And I also have such fears.”

“When we left [the newspaper], we were told that our names were also included into some blacklist,” said Tkachova, adding that she could neither confirm nor deny the information. “So I have already prepared a ‘prison’ bag for myself in case they take me away.”

Since the protests began on August 9, Belarusian and foreign journalists have been beaten, detained, and tortured. A number of local reporters working for international media have seen their accreditations revoked, while others continued to face violence and detentions.

As of September 13, the independent Belarusian Association of Journalists has recorded 195 incidents of violence and repressions against reporters across the country.

Read more: Surviving captivity in Minsk. Belarusian detainee recalls abuse and endless beatings

Additional editing by Natalija Zverko.