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Belarus in Focus
Online guide for journalists writing about Belarus. Find out who's who in business, society or politics, get practical tips and contacts, and read about other journalists' experiences. Got some more questions? Get in touch with us.
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OverviewFinalistsJudgesRulesArticlesHow to enterBelarus in Focus 2011


22 Jan

Solidarity with Belarus Information Office, (Poland)

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Oliver Money-Kyrle: Extraordinary courage, humour and creativity of Belarusian journalists

You have been working with independent media in Belarus for several years. When and how did you start? What changes have you seen during this time?

My first and last visit to Belarus was in February 2005 where I spent three very odd days encamped in the offices of the Belarus Association of Journalists sheltering from the Arctic winter and making sense of the group of busy young activists hovering around dusty old computer screens in an unseemingly cramped office. I was trying to work how they operated, achieved what they did and continued to survive in such a hostile environment. I toured offices of the leading independent print media and spent a third day negotiating snow drifts to meet members of the Barysaw BAJ branch some 100 km East of Minsk.

I’d been invited by the Danish Union of Journalists who were then running an exchange programme with BAJ to conduct a needs assessment and development plan for BAJ to be better able to protect their members, campaign for their rights and crucially maintain morale in a climate that punished independent thought and outspoken opinions.

Since then we have worked very closely on an extensive leadership training programme for young activists heading up their branches across the country. In 2005, with one or two notable exceptions, BAJ was a Minsk centred, somewhat top heavy organisation providing services and trainings to members and with a strong campaign and lobbying profile outside of the country. Advancing on its then tenth anniversary, an organisation that had been set up to protect freedom of expression was struggling to measure its achievements against a background of the relentless erosion of journalists’ rights. Addressing the threat to morale through reinvigorating its membership base and reinforcing its national reach through its network of regional branches were immediate priorities. Due in part to the travel restrictions the majority of leadership trainings were organised in neighbouring countries. So while I have not been back to Belarus since, I have nevertheless met up with our Belarus colleagues regularly in Russia, Ukraine, Lithuania, Poland and Moldova.

Since 2005 it seems that the same game being played then continues today. At the time BAJ were being threatened with the loss of its legal registration endangering its existence, leading newspapers were being denied access to national printing and distribution systems,  and journalists were regularly abused, denied access to press conferences, beaten up and treated to the standard 14 days administrative detention. Seven years later and the government enables the independent media to ‘exist’ in a semi conscious state tethered to its intensive care bed by a raft administrative restrictions and economic discriminations.

What do you find most interesting about working on Belarus? What are the most important lessons that you can draw from your experience?

The extraordinary courage, humour and creativity that seems to be generated by adversity. Despite their apparently impossible situation BAJ members have continued to generate initiatives, campaigns and actions that provide hope and inspiration for Belarus journalists as well as for journalists facing their own challenges in neighbouring countries and beyond.

How do you think Belarus is portrayed in the international media? Are there any aspects which you think deserve more attention?

The international media inevitably concentrate on the character at the top and the caricature of him as a harsh but semi comic dictator. This inevitably understates both the severity and the complexity of the political and social system. The reality however is that Belarus struggles to compete for the attention of the international media with far bigger international stories. Belarus is not at war, it is relatively stable and poses no immediate threat, or opportunity, to governments. The economic crisis may change that of course, and the undercurrent of change is likely to attract increasing attention and analysis of the likely scenarios. Meanwhile the endless diplomatic dance between the EU and Russia for the attention of Belarus, while deeply significant, does not resonate loudly in the daily news agenda.

For the second time, you will be on the judging panel for the international journalism competition ‘Belarus in Focus’. What qualities will you look for in an article this year?

Quality of writing, originality and insight and the effort / research invested into the article. Winning articles should leave the reader determined to find out more about this obscure but fascinating country.

How does the International Federation for Journalists support Belarusian journalists?

The IFJ is there to support journalists and their rights through building strong journalists’ unions and associations around the world. It has been a real pleasure and privilege to have worked with BAJ over the recent years and to have contributed to its work.   

Describe Belarus in three words:

Yet another toast

Winners of Belarus in Focus 2011

Recent competition articles