“It’s not worth blaming journalists about the fact that in the West, Belarus is always associated with Lukashenko”
A discussion took place in Minsk on June 17th about why Belarus is always overwhelmingly associated with the dictatorship in the international media, and if it’s worth struggling against this. The roundtable was held by the Warsaw-based creators of the ’Belarus in Focus’ competition and Press Club Belarus.
According to media expert Andrei Aliaksandrau, who was moderating the meeting, the article that made the biggest splash last year in the British media about Belarus was information that somewhere in Palessie, a gigantic beaver had bitten a fisherman.
“Apart from Lukashenko, BATE, and Belarus Free Theatre, there weren’t any references to Belarus in the British media last year. And that’s why, I think, the ’Belarus in Focus’ competition is very important for drawing attention to our country. Perhaps it could make sense to create some kind of universal list of topics that could be proposed to foreign journalists. To show that apart from Lukashenka and the opposition, you can create interesting pieces about many other issues”.
“The articles by the Belarus in Focus winners show your country in a manner that you can rarely come across in the Polish media” continued Polish journalist Maria Przełomiec, author of Studio Wschód, an analytical programme on Polish television, and Belarus in Focus jury member. “The majority of Belarus-related articles published in Poland concern Lukashenka, the opposition, and the situation with the Union of Poles. That’s why in the media Belarus seems as if it’s a giant collective farm headed by an abnormal chairman. Perhaps this corresponds to reality, but, in my opinion, it’s not the whole reality”.
“The aim of the Belarus in Focus competition is to draw foreign journalists’ attention to issues and life in Belarus, to encourage a more diverse approach. I think that stereotypes about Belarus and linking it only with Lukashenka and Chernobyl will slowly change” said Tatsiana Netbayeva from Solidarity with Belarus Information Office (Warsaw).
“On the whole, it’s really difficult to interest European media in articles about Belarus”, adds Spanish journalist, and Belarus in Focus laureate Argemino Barro. “I’ve personally been in the situation when no one wanted to publish my articles on Belarus. In the end, I had to give some of them away for free. The thing is that the Western reader isn’t usually interested in life in post-Soviet countries. The Western reader, and, therefore, Western media are only interested in very big, resounding issues in Eastern Europe. And that’s why the figure of Lukashenko appears most often in the media.”
“But I think that European media don’t publish about Belarus because what we’re interested in stopped being of interest to Europeans a long time ago”, added Belarusian journalist Seweryn Kwiatkowski. “For example, the restoration of some seventeenth-century building is a big deal for Belarusians. But you can find such buildings around every corner in Europe!”.
“And on the contrary, we know about issues such as the second world war, Afghanistan, or Chernobyl from those close to us, relatives, or friends. Sometimes we’ve seen these events with our own eyes. But for Europeans, certain aspects of the war in Afghanistan or the Chernobyl disaster are interesting. The international recognition of Svyatlana Aleksevich’s work is clear evidence of this. That’s why, I think, the problem lies in the totally different interests of Belarusians and Europeans.”
“Even if foreigners in Belarus are only interested in Lukashenka, professional journalists who work in Belarus for world media should make a little more effort to draw attention to what exists beyond Lukashenka” said the founder of TUT.BY portal, Yury Zisser.
“And I think that we shouldn’t blame journalists for Belarus always being associated with Lukashenko in the West”, stated journalist Mikola Dzyabyela. “Every editorial office has its own particular system of work. Media are usually oriented around topics which are of the most interest for their readers, listeners, or viewers. And they also never simply just send a journalist to a country. A journalist is always tasked with creating a piece on a specific topic that is of interest to the editorial office. Some media specialise only in tourism and sport, in nature, and that’s why they would commission something in this field in Belarus. But if the media is socio-political, then the journalist will be tasked with writing about socio-political issues.
“Perhaps it could be worth creating some kind of consulting centre, an information office. Pretty often, foreign colleagues come to us with some request for information about our country. Probably, if this kind of office existed, journalists could find out what precisely interests them before coming. That’s what I think is missing.”
*This article was translated into English on the kind permission of the Belarusian Association of Journalists.