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9 Jan

Interview with jury member Andrei Aliaksandrau (Belarus)


'Belarus has a glorious and tragic history'

Andrei, you work for Index on Censorship, a London-based freedom of expression organisation. You have also worked as a freelance journalist for various international media. What media have you worked for, and what did you learn from this experience?

I’ve written for several international media, including media which broadcasts to Belarus from abroad, such as Deutsche Welle Radio, or media aimed at foreign audience, such as Transitions Online magazine.

The interesting thing from a journalistic point of view is how you need to adjust what you write for your audience. As we know, Belarus is not exactly the centre of international media attention, so when you write about things as a Belarusian, or as a journalist from the former Soviet bloc, you really have to explain things that are so natural for you, but is not completely understood by foreigners because of the differences between the post-soviet and Western mentality.

I can feel this from international media coverage and even from my daily life experiences in London. When I say that I am from Belarus, people are sometimes puzzled, they don’t know where the country is and they’re surprised to learn that there is the Belarusian language. They say ‘Oh, we thought everyone spoke Russian in that part of the world’. This is a very challenging task sometimes because quite often you have to explain fairly complex events going on in Belarus but, at the same time, you need to provide background information to an audience that lacks the context to understand the actual news that you are delivering. So I think this is the main challenge in writing about Belarus for a foreign audience.

Could you explain what you mean by post-soviet mentality?

People from post-soviet countries tend to have a different understanding of relations between the government and the public, how society works, what democracy is, how the government or parliament represents people, and what the mechanisms of interaction are within society and within the political sphere. The mere goals of the media are seen by the audience quite differently. In post-soviet societies, people get used to media being quite often a means of propaganda, while in the west the perception is a bit different, it is seen as an essential part of democracy.

When British journalists write about Belarus, what are the most popular topics?

Well, obviously it’s a rare case. At the moment, I’m following the press coverage of what is happening in Ukraine. Leading newspapers such as the Financial Times have dedicated their front pages to events in Kiev. Belarus has never had this level of coverage, but this is mainly because Belarus has never really given that kind of reason.

However, British media does cover some events. Firstly, the coverage is connected with the Belarusian diaspora here. Belarus Free Theatre, for example, is a very well-known art collective in Britain so it has quite extensive media coverage. Secondly, some papers such as the Evening Standard pay quite a bit of attention to the situation with political prisoners in Belarus. For instance, they wrote several stories about Andrei Sannikau and Iryna Khalip, partly because Iryna works for Novaya Gazeta which has the same owner as the Evening Standard.

Have you noted any particular stereotypes used by foreign media about Belarus?

I think that the main issue is that foreign media usually don’t see Belarus behind Lukashenko. It’s the authoritarian regime that clamps down on human rights and some of the cases are highlighted, but otherwise, there is no country besides this repression.

I remember when I was working for the Belarusian Association of Journalists I was contacted by a foreign journalist who wanted to come to Belarus to write some stories. So the journalists wrote to me from a fake email saying that she wasn’t sure if it was safe to communicate or reveal her identity until we had established a safe communication channel. I calmed her down a bit. When she came to Belarus, she was really surprised because her perception before she came had been based on what had been written in the media. We can’t deny that all these terrible things are happening in Belarus, and that people are persecuted for their political views and civic activity, but there is more to the country than that. She was really expecting to see something like North Korea or a concentration camp with barbed wire and machine guns, and she was surprised to see it was not that bad; to meet Belarusian people who are nice, hospitable, with really interesting stories to tell, to discover a country with a fascinating and complicated history.

I think that Belarus is one of the most perfect illustrations of the complexity of European history, both glorious and tragic. It’s really essential that people try to find out more behind the black-and-white picture of a regime persecuting civil society. It’s much more complicated and diverse than that.

What topics, in your opinion, could be of interest in Belarus for a western journalist?

I really would like my foreign colleagues to pay more attention to aspects other than repression. Belarus certainly plays some role within the EU economy, it lies between the EU and Russia, so it has a very important geopolitical situation, and as I said it has a really fascinating history. Lots of western celebrities were born in Belarus or had Belarusian roots. Belarus is a country full of interesting surprises and I would urge foreign journalists to reveal those surprises to their audiences.

You are on the judging panel of the international journalism competition ‘Belarus in Focus 2013’. Articles will be about various topics and present different points of view. What qualities will you be looking for?

I want to see stories that go beyond pictures of repressions. It’s important that the international community knows about the human rights situation but there are more stories to tell about Belarus. It’s worthwhile getting to know this country.

And finally - can you describe Belarus in three words?

My Beloved Country