'It was just lies, lies, lies': Belarusian journalists recount life in a state-run news company
Dozens of people, including reporters, news anchors and technicians, are quitting their jobs at Belarusian state-owned news companies in the troubled aftermath of the presidential election.
Belarus president Alexander Lukashenko said their roles have already been taken up by Russian media workers,
“I’ve even asked Russians to lend me reporters to cover the president’s work and set an example of good work. I know these people”, he said.
After broadcasting an empty studio during a strike on August 17 some reporters returned to work, but there are more who are quitting.
Dailyrater spoke to 31-year-old Vadim Shundalov, who was at state-run Belarus Today for five years before he left on August 13. He calls himself “a coward” for not doing it earlier.
“Now, everything has become just lies, lies, lies and lies,” he says. “It is not true that 80 per cent voted for Lukashenko. Those votes have been stolen.”
Since joining Belarus today, Shundalov knew he would have to advance the government’s agenda, publishing articles written by the politicians and already approved by the government.
“It is a job with financial stability, and you just make peace with that and keep working. But this year, my conscience said that enough is enough.”
He decided he had to leave after the killing of Alexander Taraikovsky in Pushkinskaya Square on August 10.
The government said it was an object exploding in his hand that killed him, but a video appears showing him shot by police instead.
“We couldn’t report that” at Belarus Today, Shundalov says. “I feel terrible about this, about conveying lies.”
Popular anchor Sergei Kozlovich resigned too from his role at public TV BT. His last appearance was on August 10, the day after the election, when he realised he couldn’t go on anymore.
“When I saw the protests, I understood that we only covered it from one side,” Kozlovich says, “I disagreed with that. Friends and people that I know also participated in these protests, and I could not do it anymore.”
When he quit he knew he would find it hard to get another job as a news presenter in any of the three main TV channels in the country. He says that he fears being arrested, a fear that “everyone has in the country” now. Asked if he has taken part in propaganda, he says “yes”.
“Before the election on the 9th, I considered myself the translator for everything that the government wanted to tell people,” he says, “Not everything was devoted to politics – there were also other views – but it was about the government’s position, and I told people that. I was okay with that.”
“But now, I cannot keep reading the news on the air. Something changed,” Kozlovich says.
Could mass resignations become an issue for Lukashenko?
None of those holding top-jobs in Belarusian media appears to have resigned yet, which helps Lukashenko keeping the situation under control for now, Belarusian political analyst at Carnegie Moscow Center Artyom Shraibman told Dailyrater.
However, “tensions are at the maximum level now,” says Shraibman, “Some have relatives and friends among the victims of the crackdown. They can’t ignore it, whitewash it and come back to their family and friends.”
Thousands took to the street after the announcement of the election results, protesting over alleged frauds. They were met with violence by police. Around 7.000 were detained, many were beaten, and there are reports about torture in prisons.
According to Franak Viacorka, a non-Resident Fellow at the Atlantic Council, the recent resignations might not lead to immediate changes in the editorial line, but could nonetheless affect the quality of the programmes.
“For Lukashenko, this is a problem,” he says, “We have seen news presenters and anchors leave, and it means the loss of popular faces for the regime. You can find new ones, but it takes time to build the same popularity.”
“Audiences understand and feel this… But it can also lead to something very dangerous. If some among the audience will switch to Russian media instead”, pointing out resignations could lead to a media vacuum.
“We also still need to see how significant the impact of the Russian workers will be – because the top management is still Belarussian.”
How free is the press in Belarus?
According to the constitution, press in Belarus is free.
However, Reporters Without Borders says the country’s journalists don’t enjoy much freedom.
It is also generally difficult to get a work permit for foreign journalists or local journalists who don’t work for Belarusian state media.
“In Belarus, critical journalists and bloggers are threatened and arrested, leading news sites are blocked, access to information is restricted, and media diversity is unknown. The state exercises total control over all TV channels,” the organisation says.
Dailyrater has previously spoken to a Belarusian journalist and activist who has gone into hiding, fearing for her safety after spending 30 days in prison for speaking out against Lukashenko.