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‘People have stopped believing their TV sets’ Television workers on strike in Belarus explain why they’ve now had enough of censorship and propaganda

Source: Meduza
Valery Sharifulin / TASS / Scanpix / LETA

Protests and walkouts continue across Belarus in the wake of contested presidential election results. Staff at Belarus’ state-owned TV stations are striking, too. They protest at studios and newsrooms, demanding unbiased coverage of opposition demonstrations and the ensuing violence inflicted by law enforcement. Some seasoned journalists have already resigned. Meduza spoke with the striking workers about their demands and about censorship on the Belarusian airwaves. 

Television presenter at Belteleradio

“Boris”

I’ve been working at Belteleradio for 16 years. I’ve never worked directly with political stories, so I haven’t experienced much censorship on the job firsthand. 

I haven’t resigned yet, but I support the strikes. I think it will be fairly tough for me to return, and I think resigning will be my next step. Many of my colleagues have made plans to quit and some have left already, while others say they’ll stay until the very end. 

I come here [to the studio] and I speak with people in hopes of persuading as many colleagues as possible to join the strike. Most of all, I want newsroom staff to join our side and start reporting the truth about what’s happening. 

In Belarus, all TV broadcasters are owned by the state, and the news is divorced from reality. Obviously, when people hear about “80 percent” [Lukashenko’s official share of the votes], no one believes it. 

The election results and the bloodshed and cruelty that ensued against peaceful protesters have enraged people. They’ve stopped believing their TV sets. We couldn’t make them happy anymore and they tuned us out. For many of us who work in television, this is our whole world and it’s been painful and disappointing.

Remaining on the sidelines while all this unfolds in Belarus is simply unacceptable. For us, striking is a way to shed light on all the problems at once. When the factories go offline and the TV airs a blank screen, it becomes a compelling message. 

Our network’s management is trying to stem the flow of people by closing down the streets around the studio and getting traffic cops to patrol the area, but we’re ready to keep going until our demands are met. This includes the freedom to report the news fairly and cover the events and protests happening all over the country. We want everyone to find out what happened to protesters in the detention centers and we want viewers to make up their own minds about the news.

Cameraman at STV

“Alexey” 

I’ve been in the presidential press pool for 10 years. Everything on Belarusian TV is censored. All information is presented from the presidential administration’s viewpoint. Yesterday afternoon, our network streamed footage of Lukashenko’s visit to the Minsk Wheel Tractor Factory where the workers yelled “Resign!” at him. By the evening news broadcast, however, they’d edited out the shouting.

I think the situation in Russia is fairly similar, though at least they have a few glimpses of freedom. In Belarus, there’s nothing.

Our colleagues began striking on Friday. Several musicians and famous artists came to support us. Today, we’ve been outside since eight in the morning. My guess is that the people still working during the strike must be under immense pressure from the authorities or maybe they’re counting on a big raise — some of them smile when they pass us in their cars. 

I hope the strikes make it possible for Belarusian TV to air more objective information and ordinary citizens’ opinions. I want to be able to talk about why people are out protesting. We want our people to breathe freely! They’ve tasted freedom and we don’t want to let go.

If the situation doesn’t change, I’ll have to leave. I can’t stand being an instrument of propaganda. And this isn’t some overnight thing. I worked on cultural productions at first. I never voted for Lukashenko. Plus, it’s impossible to pursue a career in my field in Belarus without government dependence — there are no private broadcasters here whatsoever. Now that I’ve seen how many people took to the streets, I understand that silence is not an option. 

Riot police guard the Belteleradio building, August 15, 2020
Natalia Fedosenko / TASS / Scanpix / LETA 
Former host of “Our Morning” on ONT

Anna Shalyutina 

I’d already tendered my resignation letter last week in connection with the ongoing situation in the country. My views don’t fit the narrative Belarusian TV now presents to its audience.

I’d worked on the air since 2010 and I joined the editorial staff in 2015. Because I worked in entertainment programming, I didn’t really experience much censorship or receive any “instructions,” but that applies strictly to the kind of programming I was doing.

It’s important now that technical staff start resigning, too — the engineers, sound mixers, and producers, not just the anchors. My co-host and I quit together. At least five others left the show with us. 

Obviously, we were always aware of what kind of country this is. It would be silly to suggest that our eyes have opened only now. The level of cruelty the police inflicted on protesters, however, has affected nearly everyone. Each of us has a friend, or a friend of a friend, who was arrested or beaten. Our country is not that big. Many of my colleagues who are striking now have a single basic demand: they want to be able to report on these events objectively and without bias. 

The managers react differently each time another employee leaves. We parted ways amicably and they even thanked us for following our conscience. 

I’m not sure what I’ll do next. Right now, our country and society are in flux and the situation changes by the hour. Everyone in the media industry, it seems to me, is obsessed with the strikes. I suppose the walkouts at major factories are a much bigger challenge to the regime, but solidarity among cultural and media workers is crucial. The public knows who we are and feels a connection to us. They need to know that all kinds of people, no matter their line of work, are getting involved in these events.

Former sports editor at STV

Alexander Karas

I worked at STV for 18 years. I was a student when I arrived. I started as a correspondent and then became an editor. The sports department had nothing to do with politics, but there was the unpleasantness of covering the president’s hockey games. It felt wrong that we were broadcasting an amateur game, especially one with such a political angle. 

There was always a degree of self-censorship, even in sports. Whenever someone voiced an opinion that was not solely about sports but also about regular life, I didn’t submit it because I worried what my supervisor would say later. 

I kept the job because I was doing what I loved. I could have moved to a sports channel — I actually tried this — but it still would have been a state-owned network. 

I understand perfectly that many of the people who work with state television have their own views. For my part, I resigned last Friday because I saw from the start the evidence of what was happening on the streets and in the jails. It all built up inside of me.

The viciousness stunned me and I began feel physically unwell, just being present at the studio. My managers were reluctant to see me go, but my resignation was finalized within a day. I got support from my co-workers. I know others want out, too, but certain circumstances might be preventing them from leaving. 

I didn’t expect walkouts on this scale. I didn’t think TV would go on strike. Before that, people who work in front of the camera handed in their resignations. I thought maybe the hostess and correspondents would leave, but not the engineers and technicians who maybe have nothing to do with the news. It’s a real joy to see the TV industry on strike. I really hope the protests bring about a change in government, but for now I don’t know what to expect. We’re caught in the eye of a snowstorm and no one sees what’s ahead.  

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Interviews by Ani Oganesyan

Translation by Nikita Buchko

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