Daring to speak out in Belarus

A chilling account of brave journalists in Lukashenka’s Belarus, so many of whom die in unexplained circumstances. Olga Birukova hopes that Western PR gurus and journalists will not be taken in by official statements or the KGB-controlled picture of society in Belarus.

The list of my dead colleagues is growing too fast. Some I used to meet at press conferences. Others I used to read in the media outlets of my competitors and we often worked together on collaborative projects. There are not many journalists in Minsk and usually you know almost everyone who works the same beat as you do, whether on politics, finance, international affairs or anything else.

"They make a point of choosing someone out of the blue. Somebody neither famous nor scandalous, who hasn’t been directly involved in politics and high-up investigations. Somebody you never expect to be killed. Just to terrify others. To make others play by their rules," said Minsk-based journalist Alina (name changed for security reasons).

We were discussing the 2004 murder of our colleague Veranika Charkasava (45). By "them" she meant the KGB, which still operates openly in Belarus, or any one of President Lukashenka’s eight special services. I couldn’t conceive of such cruelty as using a "showcase murder" as a deterrent, but Alina was convinced that this had been the true reason for Veranika's death and for the 2000 disappearance of Dmitry Zavadsky, formerly Lukashenka’s personal cameraman. Both Charkasava and Zavadsky had had their "big stories" in the past. They were some years ago, but when the tragedies happened, we were left hopelessly guessing.

Zavadsky

It was a summer day in 2000, when Dmitry Zavadsky went by car to the airport to meet his friend and colleague Pavel Sheremet. Neither his family nor relatives and friends have known anything about his fate until now.

"Nobody is really scared by the recent death of Oleg Bebenin this September", Kirill (not his real name), another Minsk-based journalist and media-trainer, attempted to persuade me over the phone a few days ago. We were talking about the 36-year old journalist and human rights activist found dead at his dacha last month. The preliminary official verdict was suicide, but his friends and colleagues regard the circumstances as extremely suspicious. “The media, both state-controlled and democratic, have already got their next wave of young journalists", added Kirill. But he is a representative of “the next generation": he’s in his 20s and has never heard of Bebenin or the dozens of others who have been creating the media for their new country, since it became independent in 1991.

They have no idea what life was like or what the political agenda was 15, 10 or even 5 years ago. It wasn’t part of their government-approved university syllabus. Journalists get older and a new wave is needed. But there’s another reason that Kirill didn’t mention. Many journos have simply left the country or the profession. Some stay unemployed for a long time, as no editor will take the risk of employing them. But the media law is so restrictive that they can’t start their own media business either.

Belarus map

Some have died, sometimes in circumstances that remain unclear. Nobody, neither friends nor devastated families, asks any questions. Officially their sudden deaths have been the result of heart attacks or strokes.

Just a couple of examples. Yury Shiroky was 36. Among other assignments for the private news agency BelaPAN, he managed a site with full and fair coverage of the Lukashenka election in 2006. He was found dead in the street in a provincial town Smorgon on 13 January 2008. Olgerd Neverovsky, who used to cover the hottest political topics for independent radio, died just a few days after his 40th birthday in September 2009.

The sudden deaths of some politicians have been described as “strange, possibly murder”, but not those of journalists. Dictatorships are designed to make you feel paranoid. The average life expectancy in Belarus is 63 years for men and 75 for women. When people die before their time, you never know why for sure, unless there is a full and independent investigation. No such thing exists in Belarus. Nobody dares ask for it. Belarusian society knows it is safer to keep silent, even about cases that clearly deserve investigation.

Vyacheslav Tkach was 41. He was a journalist with “Komsomolskaya Pravda”, who had covered some military counterintelligence case back in 1999 and had problems with the KGB then. In February 2008 he was found hanged in the forest near Minsk. There was no reaction, just silence. His colleagues refused to make a fuss. They simply accepted the comfortable explanation: suicide. I knew Tkach for many years, I saw him just few weeks before he died, smiling and chatting as usual. I cannot believe that he suddenly fell victim to deep depression.

It was the same with Oleg Bebenin, mentioned above, founder of the popular opposition site, Charter-97. His scared relatives tried to accept the horrible truth in silence, but for once his colleagues refused. They shouted  "Don’t believe it! This is cold-blooded murder by the regime!" They posted information and their comments online on the www.charter97.org  site and in their blogs. Everyone who spoke out about his death reported receiving online threats in their blogs.

Bebenin’s death made the news far beyond the borders of Belarus. Russian TV crews filed reports from his grave. The Guardian reminded us of the EU intention to decide on sanctions against top Belarus officials this October. "Murder dressed up as suicide is possibly a reflection of the struggle for influence among different groups inside the special services. It obviously doesn’t stop Charter-97 and only tarnishes Lukashenka’s image still more. The hidden message to the President is that decisions must be taken by others. So it appears to be a struggle for power”, concluded Svetlana Kalinkina, deputy editor of the private newspaper Narodnaya Volya”. After this she received death threats.

Bebenin

Oleg Bebenin was one of the founders and leaders of Charter97.org website. His body was found on September 3rd, 2010 at 5.30 p.m. in his summer cottage not far from Minsk.

On the eve of new elections in December 2010, at the height of full-scale economic conflict with Russia, Lukashenka has made an unexpected concession by allowing OSCE experts to investigate the case. They are scheduled to come to Minsk in October. But whatever conclusion they reach, my own will not change: Belarus is NO SAFE PLACE for inquiring minds or journalists. There is no reason to expect open and accurate statements from the officials who run the state squeezed in between Russia, Ukraine and the European Union. There is no reason to believe the picture created under total KGB supervision, especially when foreign media are expected to play their part in helping Lukashenka in his quest for respect and respectability in Europe, now that Russia has finally lost patience with him.

Since July Russian Channel NTV has been broadcasting a 4-part documentary ("The Nation's Godfather"). This portrays Lukashenka as an oppressive dictator who eliminates any possible opposition and breaks all the rules, both legal and moral. In 2008 the Belarus president hired the skills of British PR-guru Lord Bell. More recently, in a bid to win friends and influence in Europe, he brought in Lord Chadlington. I only hope that European journalists have longer memories and a sense of both history and justice and that they will remember all these circumstances, when they are covering the Belarus presidential elections in December 2010.

"Let's say that Lukashenko knows how to force people in order to have their love. He's the only politician with access to the national broadcasters in a country where there are no free press and independent media; he has filled the streets and public places with his own images; he has repressed and imprisoned political opponents and dissidents. Could people say that they don't love him? As Lukashenko himself said on the national channel some days ago, rebuking his First Minister Sjarhej Sidorski, there is not any other politicians in Belarus except him."

Alexander Milinkevich, Belarusian oposition politician

I also hope that European journalists will demand explanations for the deaths and disappearances of our colleagues that have punctuated Lukashenka’s 16 years in power.

As this article was in preparation, I heard from Belarus journalists that the Interior Minister Kuleshov had informed them Scotland Yard experts were coming to Minsk to help with investigations of the Bebenin murder. I hope they achieve something.

Olga Birukova,  Exiled Journalist Network, former Belarus journalist.

About the author

Olga Birukova is a member of the Exiled Journalists Network, the Bristol-based group supported by the NUJ that offers help and support to colleagues in exile in the UK. She formerly worked as fixer in Belarus for various BBC outlets.

Read On

Profile: Alexander Lukashenko, BBC

Belarus Digest (Monitoring Belarus In International Media), web site  

www.charter97.org web site

Civil Initiative “We Remember”, web site

Office for a Democratic Belarus, web site

www.Belarus.by  – official Belarus web site.

Nelly Bekus, Struggle over Identity: The Official and the Alternative "Belarusianness" (Budapest: Central European University Press, 2010)

David Marples, "Can the Belarusian opposition unite?"

For Free and Fair Media In Belarus, Report by the International Fact Finding Mission to the Republic of Belarus, 2009

More On

When the Belarus government engages with the media, it routinely uses the language of war. Speaking at the Belarusian State University in February 2008 President Lukashenko clearly stated that he considers sectors of the media beyond his direct authority a direct threat. "Media hold a weapon of a most destructive power," Lukashenko told a group of journalism students at the university, "They must be controlled by the state."

For Free and Fair Media In Belarus, Report by the International Fact Finding Mission to the Republic of Belarus, 2009