How do you survive as a journalist in a country ranked worse than Iran on press freedom and worse than Zimbabwe on human rights? In the lead up to next month's Belarusian presidential elections, exiled reporter Olga Birukova talks to Index on Censorship about her experience as a young journalist
Interview by Tena Prelec
Early 1990s: a new generation
We are used to thinking about Belarus as a country with not the slightest trace of free expression. Under President Alexander Lukashenko's authoritarian control, journalists have been repressed, fined, fired, beaten, arrested, sentenced, violated, or disappeared in suspicious circumstances. Yet this is not the whole story: after the end of the Communist regime, pluralism permeated Belarusian society.
Olga Birukova, a Stoke-on-Trent-based journalist of Belarusian origin, recalls those times: "After the fall of the Soviet Union, everybody in Belarus understood that a new kind of journalism was necessary, but nobody knew how to do it."
To overcome this gap, a bunch of experienced reporters organised informal training she took part in: "A whole new generation of journalists was formed:today's big names in newspapers such as Russia's Kommersant were present. We all enjoyed a relative degree of freedom, even in state-run media, until the beginning of 1995".
In 1994, the first presidential elections in independent Belarus took place. Alas, those "first democratic elections" resulted in 15 years - and counting - of undemocratic rule, with the rise to power of Aleksandr Lukashenko.
A media takeover was quickly secured: by April 1995, Lukashenko had substituted the editors-in-chief of all the main newspapers. "In the case of Znamya Yunosti, [the paper Birukova worked at] our well-respected editor Mikhail Katushenko was dismissed and substituted with a new, less experienced journalist. At that point, a great number of reporters left the paper out of protest. I was happy I had left it earlier: a good paper is always the product of a good team - if there is no team, everything loses sense".
Controlled journalism: destructive for the personality
"Being forced to write something you do not believe in, turns you into a different person", Birukova says. "I have never worked in state media myself. However, I used to meet some of my former colleagues at press conferences. I saw the change that happened to them: what I could see in their eyes was depression, no interest in life anymore. It was just so destructive to the personality. That's why I knew I could not follow this path."
No change without free will
"Sadly, today's generation of journalists cannot even make a comparison with the previous situation, as they were grown under this regime : they tend to be brainwashed by default. In my time it was different: like many of the active people of my generation, I truly thought we could change the country. It took us some time to realise that change is possible only where there is free will. In Belarus, unfortunately, there is none. That's when I decided to move to the UK." Birukova today is free to write her articles, collaborate with Open Democracy and Exiled Journalists Network, and to keep her blog running, "and that's all I need," she says.
Still, change does not come without certain drawbacks. Different backgrounds mean different understandings, as she explains: "When I hear somebody saying 'It's a cold winter', for me that means -20C at least, whereas what they mean here is -2C at most. In the same way, it is really difficult to make the British grasp our difficulties in terms of press freedom. It is just too far from their understanding."
The price of independence
Birukova explains what it means to try to carry out independent journalism in Belarus: "When I used to work for the BBC, our phones were bugged. But that was the least: in Belarus I received both on-line and phone threats and have been physically attacked as well - fortunately managing to run away with no damage. In 2008, when I was already in the UK, I suddenly found among my music CDs a video of a hostage execution. I interpreted it as a direct intimidation. I have never made these threats public before: in our culture you simply do not complain openly about problems, it equals admitting: 'yes, I have been defeated'. However, now I hope I will be able to publish my story one day".
The international community should choose who they speak to carefully
Is there anything the international community can do to help Belarusian society, or is it better not to interfere? "There are two different points of view," Birukova says. "Some people simply think there is no help for Belarusian society. In my personal view, I think foreign governments should definitely care about what is happening in Belarus. Yet, they should choose who they speak to very carefully."
The future: still hoping for a miracle to happen
Like many political commentators Birukova is not setting her hopes high for the immediate future of Belarus. "However, when I visit oppositional websites such as Charter97, I have the feeling that the regime is going to fall from one minute to the other: this is definitely a different campaign than the ones before," Birukova says. Still, even though Lukashenko does not enjoy Russia's backing this time, polling figures point to his likely re-election. Never underestimate the power of people: "You never know how things will develop: it all depends on how people will react. I am still hoping for a miracle to happen."
Please support this petition on free expression in Belarus. It takes 5 seconds to sign zoneofsilence.org