by Volha Birukova
4-th Lukashenka elections turned out to be devastating for Belarus press. Targeted in particular are journalists, photographers, cameramen and camerawomen broadcasting on-line, and especially those who work for foreign media.
As if after having paid profusely to renowned PR-gurus, who tried improve Belarus international image, but somehow not really successfully, now KGB has been smashing in total desperation the "malicious mirror" for it reflects and broadcasts their faces in a way they don't like. As if simple journalists are their personal enemies. It has no logic. It's totally beyond of what was considered to be "rules of hard game for independent media" so far. But it's a new reality in the country between EU and Russia.
For the first time, during street demonstrations 19 December riot police did not pay attention to badges "Media" and to shoutings "I am a journalist" and beat many of them as anybody else who was on the Lenin Square and around that time. During and after massacre 20 journalists reported to be injured, 26 -- detained, though some for a very short term, but 6 members of Belarus Association of Journalists (www.baj.by) are still held in KGB remand center as suspected in "organization and participation in riots", facing a maximum penalty up to 15 years in jail. Two ladies of them are well-known journalists -- Natalya Radzina (editor of www.charter97.org, by reports she got severe head injuries), and Irina Khalip (Russian Novaya Gazeta, she's wife of opposition candidate Andrew Sannikov as well).
Search-confiscate- all-equipment-video-photos-interrogate-and- intimidate campaign has been running nonstop, even during Christmass and New Year festivities, early in the morning and late in the night. In the list are EU-funded "Belsat", "European Radio", private "Nasha Niva", "Borisovskie Novosti", dozen of private flats and houses of journalists, civil activists and even freelancers, who live far from Minsk and weren't at the place of event. All top-managers of Belarus Association of Journalists (www.baj.by) have been interrogated by KGB.
Official explanation is "We are looking for video and pictures to get evidences of those who acted violently". But in fact, KGB cameramen work openly on any street action. What could they miss 19 December while filming from comfortable positions behind riot police rows?
Since then, during last 3 weeks Belarus media live in "emergency and survival" situation, with facebook and livejournal updates as main and the quickest way to exchange news about unwelcomed guests and forced travels to KGB.
Grodna-based correspondent for Polish 'Gazeta Vyborcha" Andrew Poczobut reported to be beaten during interrogation. Poczobut was arrested 19 December for a while and then released. January the 8-th riot police detained him near his house and transported him to local KGB office. His chosen tactic -- "keep silence and smile" irritated KGB agents so much that they beat him during what they called "conversation to warn against further participation in riots".
"If I met you on the street, I would have swiped this smile quickly, he (KGB interrogator) shouted and run toward me from his working desk. He hit my chest with his fist. I was too close to the chair and fell down. So he hit my head with his fists several times. I covered my head with my hands, but kept silence" -- Andrew wrote in his blog (http://poczobut.livejournal.com) and in his newspaper. Two days later he complained to military Prosecutors Office who supervised local KGB. Poczobut, strong (physically and morally) man said he felt rather confident, as big Polish newspaper and whole Polish community was behind him. But 12 January his flat was combed, he was forcibly moved to Minsk KGB and 13 January sentenced to a fine of an amount 1.750 mln of Belarus rubles (?376).
"Nasha Niva" camerawoman Tatsian Gaurylchik received threat of physical attack, just few hours after she refused talk to KGB officer without her legal representative. January 3-d somebody called her home and repeated twice: "You'll get pale face and less teeth". She worked on the Square 19 December and produced video-reports for the site (www.nn.by). Week later her flat was searched and she was summoned to the KGB. Gaurylchik reported the threat to militia.
January 12-th New York based Committee to Protect Journalists (www.cpj.org) condemned "the ongoing official crackdown against the independent media in Belarus". (http://cpj.org/2011/01/post-election-crackdown-on-the-press-continues-in.php#more)
Same day, as if in responce officials cancelled the broadcasting license of the popular station "Autoradio", allegedly for "calls to extremism" 16 December, when "Autoradio" gave air time to opposition candidate Andrew Sannikov who said "fate of the country is determined in the square, not the kitchen". For a moment it's the first media banned for coverage of the pre-election campaign. And this is the most serious threat for any organization. This sad list is updating every day.
Why do they continue the crackdown against media? This is the main question, which puzzles not only me. Is it to scare journalists in Belarus and to force them improve the image of the country they portray? Or it's just a message to the outside world "we can finish this senseless democracy and silence media any time, you see?" Anyway it works, both ways.
"By my personal impression, searches, equipment confiscation -- are just tools to prevent independent media from working properly. It is possible, though, they are looking for videomaterials to prevent further publications. But it doesn't worth it. All information is in the internet already", -- said deputy chair of Belarus Association of Journalists Andrew Bastunets in his interview to local site www.naviny.by before his meeting in KGB.
"Nasha Niva" editor-in-chief Andrew Dynko thinks there are some possibility that KGB is searching for some not-published yet video and photos. "They search for it. But it's not all. We cannot exclude element of intimidation", he said.
"This pressure on journalists I consider as recognition of their high professionalism in coverage of events 19-December and after. Journalists have done their job very well and now officials revenge them", said the chair of BAJ Janna Litivna in Minsk 14 January.
Many of other local experts believe as well that Lukashenka personally became furious to discover the real level of his support was no more than 50%, so now he's taking his vengeance. But the country is over-controlled by special service, so it's hard to believe they could miss such substantive facts as the lack of sympathy, or position of media.
Apparently the media crackdown was well thought and designed to be deliberately rough, possibly by those from special services who are called now "hawks", or "young wolves" and are considered to be the next generation -- far less experienced in all kind of "information wars", but very enthusiastic in this "butcher style media management" instead.
Why? Few explanations are possible. They could have decided to mute preventively journalists and civil society -- -- after several recent scandals with leaked to media document sensitive for KGB, militisa, and prosecutors offices, on the eve of still promised large-scale privatization and quite possibly simply to clean up the space in a hope for a new wave of well controlled and "well behaved" opposition and press.
As a reaction, it's possible that more Belarus media will operate from abroad. At least charter97 already received an offer from Polish colleagues to move the office to Warsaw.
For a moment it's unclear whether Lukashenka decided to close down the country or he will try to fancy the West furthermore as if nothing happened. But for sure, it's not the same country anymore. Sadly and suddenly enough.
ps. By recent independent IISEPS think-tank exit poll 51,1% voted for Lukashenka. Meanwhile Belarus militsia said journalists should have left the Square as soon as they had been totld the action was illegal.