Freedom Chat: Belarusian Journalist Michał Janczuk
In the eyes of the Belarusian government, Michał Janczuk is an illegal reporter. He works for Belsat, a television station that broadcasts from Poland to avoid being shut down by Belarus’s authoritarian government. In March 2012, Janczuk and a fellow journalist were barred from exiting Belarus. Though he is now able to come and go from Belarus, Janczuk and his fellow independent reporters still face the risk of being charged with “unlawful production and dissemination of information.”
This is the full transcription of Sampsonia Way’s sixth installment of The Freedom Chat, which shares the voices and stories of journalists from around the world through video chats. The interview was conducted by Sampsonia Way assistant editor Olivia Stransky. You can watch the video here.
Belarus has been called the “last dictatorship in Europe.” What does that label means for journalists working there?
We’ve had the same president for twenty years, Alexander Lukashenko. This year in Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Index, Belarus was ranked 157 out of 180. This is the only European country placed so low and it’s a disaster for journalism in Belarus.
Despite this situation, it seems that Belarus isn’t frequently covered by international media. Why do you think there’s so little international coverage of what’s happening in the country?
It’s so dependent on the international situation. Today the world’s attention is on Moscow and Ukraine because Ukraine is a key state for the stability of the entire region. The destiny of Europe for the next twenty years could be decided by their next presidential election. Ukraine has 45 million people while Belarus only has 9.5 million people, so we don’t have the same level of influence for the region.
Has the situation in Belarus been improving or worsening in the past five years?
Life in Belarus is very dependent on the presidential “election” cycle —the reelection cycle of Mr. Lukashenko. Between presidential elections, life is better for journalists in Belarus. It’s not pleasant, but it’s ok. During the election there are massive problems for independent media: Places are raided by secret police and our equipment is confiscated. This happens every five years; the next time will be in the spring of 2015.
You mentioned that independent media groups are put under a lot of pressure during that time. How many independent groups are there in Belarus right now?
During Lukashenko’s rule, these last twenty years, the amount of independent media outlets has decreased drastically. There are no independent radio stations operating inside the country. There are a few operating from Poland and Lithuania, mostly Poland. We have one independent TV channel, which broadcasts from Warsaw. There are only a few regional newspapers that are independent, and that’s a very small part of the Belarusian media system. Access to public space is radically limited by the Belarusian state.
Let’s talk a little bit about Belsat, which is the organization that you work for.
We have been producing Belsat for six and a half years. We have a network of reporters inside the country, but we’re forced to broadcast our signal from Warsaw because the Belarusian Foreign Ministry forbids our activity in Belarus. Our journalism is based on Western standards of objectivity and impartiality. We’ve been raided four times by the secret police, which totally destroyed our infrastructure inside Belarus each time, but we’ve managed to renew it, and we will have to renew it again after the presidential election in 2015.
In Belarus, according to the national media law, if you don’t have a journalist accreditation, you’re not a journalist. You need to be working for a registered media group to get that accreditation. There is no such word as “freelancer” under the Belarusian media law, so all freelancers in Belarus are working illegally. We’ve tried to obtain accreditation a couple of times, but none of our people have received it. That’s why accessing information is so difficult for us. Currently, we’re trying to solve this problem by asking colleagues from registered media to help our people pretend to be accredited journalists so they can access information.
How do you go about recruiting reporters and correspondents from inside Belarus? Do they seek you out?
It’s a struggle; people are scared. However it’s not very easy to stop working with us because once you have worked as a journalist for independent media, you cannot find a job in state media. You’re blacklisted. However there are many brave young people who are trying to join us from every region of Belarus. All around the country, there is a network of reporters that report and write for us.
One of your reporters, Ales Zaleuski, stood trial on May 27. It’s assumed that this is because he was working for you. He was ultimately fined $450 (USD) for “unlawful production and dissemination of mass media products.” Can you tell me a little bit more about that situation?
This case is exemplary of our situation. Alex Zaleuski is not a journalist according to the Belarusian media, but he is a reporter traveling around the country and he covers the common people’s problems. He’s trying to make an intervention and reports on the most difficult cases.
He was accused of collecting information and spreading it without a journalist accreditation. Fortunately it’s not a criminal article in Belarus, but a simply an administrative article.
What topic was he covering for Belsat, or does it not matter what he was reporting on? Is it enough that he was an illegal reporter?
We are trying to show issues that are not covered by state-run media, and to reach the broadest audience we cover the topics that are important to the common people. This is the conflict with authorities, who are not helping people solve their problems.
Belarus is a very centralized state. There is no similar local government in the United States. Everything is decided in the capital, Minsk, and local officials aren’t very helpful.
The only way to force the government to solve these problems is to show them in the media.
Do you think that you could ever face jail time for the work that you do?
It’s a difficult question, but we should all be prepared for that. After the last presidential election in 2010 there was an attempt to make a criminal case against journalists. The court accused us of inciting massive public riots and disorder. Fortunately this case was never made, but they tried. Only a few journalists were jailed after the presidential election, but as private citizens, not as part of an organization or network. The next presidential election will not be so good for journalists.
You mentioned before that Belsat’s goal is to report on topics that aren’t covered by state-run media. What are the most censored topics in Belarus? What doesn’t the government want talked about?
There are sixty-two different government ministries and committees that are top-secret. Thus, we have a huge catalogue of topics to talk about, but the most terrible problem is the ineffectiveness of the Belarusian state. It’s a very centralized and closed system, and very ineffective in its distribution of tax-collected money. The Belarusians don’t know how their taxes are spent. So we’re trying to explain what’s happening with our money and show how it’s not being spent effectively.
We also want to show what’s happening in the rest of the world because the state-run propaganda shows Belarus as a happy island in a world of terrible things. The United States is an axis of evil in Belarusian propaganda. Belarusians need to know that there are different ways to live. They are used to Belarus, and almost 60% of the Belarusian population has never left the country, which makes them an ideal audience for propaganda because they’ve never seen anything different. This is the main audience that we are fighting for, to show an alternative way of life and democratic traditions.
How successful has that been? How much of the population is looking for that alternative media source?
According to our surveys, we have about one million viewers, out of a population of nine and a half million. But we are only available via satellite, and not every house in Belarus has a satellite dish. However 10% of the population is quite a big group and could be enough to influence people who are not watching our programs.
How is it that Belsat ended up in Poland? Is there anything in particular that makes Poland a good base to operate out of?
Hundreds of years ago, Belarus and Poland were both occupied by Russia. We have close cultural relations and shared values. The Polish Foreign Ministry is quite active in advocating for democracy in the region because it’s crucial for Poland to have democratically-run states in this region. That’s why we are very thankful for the support of the Polish government and the Polish Foreign Ministry, which is headed by Radosław Sikorski and provides most of our funding.
Aside from Belsat, what organizations are persecuted by the Belarusian government?
Independent media is very important, it’s the last line of defense for freedom of speech. But there are also organizations that defend human rights. It’s very difficult work because we don’t have fair courts in Belarus; judges are appointed by Lukashenko. And of course, these people are making decisions according to the will of the President. That’s why the activity of human rights defenders is maybe even more important than that of independent media, because they’re defending people in those situations. Ales Bialiatski, the head of the Viasna Human Rights Centre, was sentenced to four and a half years in jail for not paying taxes. Of course, it’s not about not paying taxes, but about his activism. At the moment, these organizations are illegal, but they’re still trying to defend people in difficult situations. They are helpful in restoring the Belarusian people’s hope for a better future.
Is there anything that would make you stop?
We have been building Belsat for six and a half years, and there are other journalists that have been fighting for 20 years, since the beginning of Lukashenko’s time. We will fight until the end. I have two kids, and I want a better future for them than I have today.