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Behind the Lens in Belarus: Documenting the Fight for Democracy


24 March 2023

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Interview with a Belarusian photojournalist

To mark International Day of Solidarity with Belarus, we spoke to a Belarusian photojournalist and participant in ECPMF’s JiR Programme about the country’s future, connecting with audiences in exile, documenting human rights abuses, and what needs to be done to truly show solidarity with Belarus.


Prior to the 2020 protests in Belarus, the journalist’s primary occupation was commercial photojournalism. However, as the protests began, they became actively involved in covering the election campaign and subsequent demonstrations. They initially volunteered, but eventually became employed in the field. Their work involves documenting human rights violations and acts of violence perpetrated against individuals persecuted by the Lukashenka regime. 

What are the potential political, economic, and social implications for Belarus and its citizens if the current regime were to collapse, and how might these implications affect those who have fled the country?

It is not guaranteed that democracy would come instantly if the regime were to fall. It will depend heavily on who comes to power. If one delves into the history and current politics of other countries, one realises that things could be even worse, despite the current level of repression. It is one thing if a democratic government comes to power, and quite another if Lukashenka is overthrown by his own people, security forces or Putin. If it is the latter, one can expect even more tightening of the screws and a gradual transition from authoritarianism to totalitarianism, from an ordinary dictatorship to fascism. But even if a democratic government comes in, one should not expect that all problems will automatically be solved at once. For 29 years, Lukashenka’s government has been ruining  everything; the economy is in a deplorable state. For the next 5-20 years, people would likely hate the new leaders, as they would have to clean up Lukashenka’s mess. However, the repression will stop and people will be able to go back to their homes, their families and loved ones. I think many will return, though not all of them, of course. Some have already found a new job or their children have started kindergarten in a new country and it would be too stressful to move them. Also, all political prisoners will be released and many will stay in Belarus, but probably not all. I myself have thought about emigration before, but after the protests in 2020 I fully realised that I am Belarusian and I want to live in my home country. I think it might be a common case. 


How do you maintain contact with your audience in an environment entirely lacking press freedom? In particular while working from abroad.

On a practical level, the media survived mostly because people create and share the content themselves. In 2023, the vast majority of people own smartphones, and many of them are happy to provide information about what’s going on. In other words, while investigative journalism has fallen on hard times, the profession itself continues to function largely thanks to the internet and people’s initiative, and it is largely through anonymous sources of information. Most of the independent press has survived and continues to operate, albeit from abroad. People in the country actively help journalists in covering events and picturing the country today. Particularly noteworthy are the achievements of the civic-activist project “Belarusian Hajun“, which illustrates that civil society is still alive and ready to help provide information. Besides, most of our friends stayed in Belarus, and the everyday conversations help us stay connected to the things happening at home.


What role do you think photojournalism plays in raising awareness about social and political issues in Belarus and around the world?

Photojournalism is an incredibly powerful medium for capturing and conveying events. Thanks to the work of Belarusian photojournalists and videographers, the world has been able to learn about the ongoing situation in Belarus from 2020 to the present day. Unlike text, photographs are instantly comprehensible, memorable, and evoke emotions that prompt action. Quality photojournalism often tells a story, not just of a particular event, but of a specific individual. When we are immersed in the context of someone’s experience, it resonates more deeply with us than dry statistics and facts. Photographs can capture nuances and details that text cannot convey.


On a global level, there are countless examples of how photography has influenced the public opinion through the media and even  in part contributed to end wars. Perhaps the most striking example of this is the photograph of a girl after a bombing during the Vietnam War. This image became a catalyst for anti-war protests in the US and ultimately hastened the end of the conflict.


Speaking of Belarus, there were many pictures that contributed to the introduction of sanctions against Lukashenka’s regime, these images were actively demonstrated at international summits on the resolution of the crisis in Belarus. Or they simply became symbols of resistance, testimony to the courage and resilience of the Belarusians, and useful material for historians who will study the struggle for the freedom of our citizens. And the sense of the effectiveness of photojournalism as a profession gives me strength.


Have you faced any particularly challenging or dangerous situations while working as a photojournalist in Belarus? And how did you handle it?

Regrettably, I have had to flee from law enforcement officers on several occasions while reporting. Having personally witnessed the detention of my colleagues, I knew that if I were detained, it would be of no benefit to anyone and that I would be more useful on the outside than behind bars. I recall an incident that took place on August 9 when I was returning from broadcasts at around 2 am. As I walked with a group of people, a riot police van appeared out of nowhere, and they rushed towards us. Luckily, I am quite adept at running and was able to escape the cordoned-off area quickly. I remember an officer even trying to grab my shirt, but I broke free and managed to evade him by moving through the yards.


On Raman Bandarenka‘s Memorial Day, when Belsat journalists Ekaterina Andreeva, Darya Chultsova, and many other Belarusians were detained, I was also in the square. It felt like a sign from above that I should immediately leave the place, which I did. Later, when I turned on the broadcast, I discovered that the riot police had closed in on the area only 30 seconds after I had departed. Who knows what might have happened if I had stayed? Perhaps my fate would have been very different, and I would not be speaking with you now.


To those outside of Belarus, it may be difficult to understand why a member of the press would need to flee. However, the guidelines to protect journalists do not apply in Belarus. Even if you have a press vest and accreditation, there is still a risk of being detained, tortured, or mistreated. Currently, over 36 independent press representatives are imprisoned and facing severe sentences.


How can individuals/the international community express solidarity with Belarus in its fight for democracy and a free future?

In my opinion, it is important for the governments of the countries where Belarusians are forced to hide from the current regime to inform their population about the difference between Belarusians and Lukashenka’s regime. Having communicated with the inhabitants of various European countries, I came to the conclusion that most of them still do not fully understand what happened in 2020, why the Belarusian protest has not been able to change the regime until now, and why the Belarusians do not come out against the Lukashenka regime in 2023, allowing it to use the territory of Belarus in the aggression of Russia in Ukraine. Many Europeans are used to the idea that if they came out to protest, the government would hear them, take them into account, amend the laws, or carry out reforms. Despite the fact that Belarus is actually in Europe, things are somewhat different there. 


Belarusians struggle for a free society despite never having experienced one. Their lack of experience with transparent public policy makes the fight challenging. However, as a young state, Belarus can learn from other post-Soviet countries’ experiences and overcome these obstacles. However, in this process we need help and understanding from more developed democracies.


Among the concrete measures that would contribute to the resolution of the conflict, I think that the Ukrainian authorities should meet with Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya’s cabinet and find some common ground.


While Belarusians aren’t typically discriminated against in most EU countries, some may encounter a lack of awareness on a personal level. It would be helpful if democratic governments could educate their citizens on the actual situation in Belarus. It is important to support civic initiatives, independent press, human rights organisations, and charity funds. It is important to help to get humanitarian visas and residence permits, if people are threatened on the territory of Belarus and want to leave the country. Many people in Belarus have lost their jobs because of repression, so financial support of the people will not be superfluous.


So many active people have left and continue to leave the country since 2020. It is important not to let these people disappear, it is important to help them to fulfil themselves abroad so that they can learn something new. When they can return to Belarus safely, people will be able to transfer new knowledge and experience to build a free Belarus. The more professional solidarity initiatives like ECPMF for journalists and for people from other fields  the better, because all professions are persecuted, not only ours.


To what extent do you believe Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and other opposition figures are able to truly represent the interests of Belarusians who oppose the current regime? Do you believe they accurately represent your own interests?

I believe that Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya does represent the interests of Belarusians who disagree with the ruling regime. She may not always succeed, but in my opinion she does the best she can. Right now it doesn’t have much of a changing effect on Lukashenka’s regime, but it creates pressure on it and paves the way for the future of Belarus. 


I believe that she represents my interests as well, because due to her efforts – as well as the protests against the regime in 2020 – Belarusians are not associated with the Lukashenka regime and the war in Ukraine. There is a fairly friendly attitude to Belarusians in Europe, unlike towards Russians who had not had such a mass participation in the demonstrations. I have heard about some cases of discrimination, but these are rather single cases , if it happens, it’s not common. For example, my acquaintance in Lithuania was refused a lease for a flat because he spoke English and Russian, so the landlord decided that my acquaintance was Russian. 


Tsikhanouskaya also lobbies for humanitarian visas for Belarusians. I think that all of this together, both her efforts and our protests, help us to value our identity, culture, and language more. And this is also very important.


You have witnessed and documented human rights violations and violence experienced by those persecuted by the Lukashenka regime. What is that like when you are in a profession routinely subject to such violations? And that you run a risk of facing them because of that work?

Documenting human rights violations like tortures and violence often leads to vicarious trauma and PTSD, which can affect physical and psychological health. Quality of sleep is often affected, and there is also a desensitisation to violence. When I learned on February 24 that a full-scale invasion of Ukraine had begun, I had no emotional reaction. I felt numb, as if everything inside me had burned out. The events in Bucha triggered traumatic flashbacks to the torture and murder in Belarus, which deeply affected me. Of course, the political terror in Belarus cannot be compared to the war crimes and horror in Ukraine. It affected me for a long time, as well as many others. It is a tragedy for Ukraine, and for the world and humanity as a whole. 


There is no doubt that one day we will achieve freedom, democracy, human rights, freedom of thought, and Belarus will get what it deserves. It is a matter of time. Putin’s regime may collapse tomorrow, and if Putin leaves, Lukashenka will leave too. It may take years or even decades, but we will definitely get there, because everything always ends well, and if it doesn’t end well, then it’s not the end yet. Long Live Belarus! (Жыве Беларусь! Žyvie Bielaruś!), Glory to Ukraine! (Слава Україні!, Slava Ukraïni!) and, hopefully, Russia will be free (Россия будет свободной! Rossya budet svobodnoj!). I would be glad if Russia abandoned its imperialism and focused its efforts on correcting the harm it has caused, becoming a democratic state, which doesn’t disturb itself or its neighbours.

Interview conducted and translated by Verena Podolsky.

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