During the meeting, organized by the “Ukrainian school of journalism” and its Polish partners, Ukrainian media representatives had the opportunity to talk with the staff of Belsat, Belarusian opposition TV channel, which broadcasts from Warsaw.
The channel was created in 2007 and financially endorsed by Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Today, as the support of Polish government continues, Belsat also receives grant funding from the Netherlands, Sweden, and other European countries. Belarusian journalists, who make up the most of Belsat staff, explained the need for such media in the absence of a serious television channel at that time, which would broadcast entirely in Belarusian, would adhere to democratic values as opposed to Lukashenko’s authoritarian regime, and would show a different, European, side of Belarusian culture, not just its sovietisized model. All of this is reflected in the “Belsat Values,” with which the channel was born.
The channel’s programming is mostly composed of news (the “Lens” section), historical and cultural programs (the “History under the sign of the chase”), economic analysis (the “Balance”), and political talk shows (the “Talk of the Day,” the “Forum”); there are also authored programs, jurisprudential shows, reporter investigations, children’s content, movies and other TV content. Every day the channel is watched by about 500,000 people worldwide.
The feature and the main difficulty of Belsat is the ban on accreditation in their native Belarus. In the days of the channel’s inception, Alexander Lukashenko had named the project, which broadcasted into Belarus from Poland, a hostile one. Since then, Belsat journalists have been actually operating on partisan terms.
“After the date of the next presidential elections in Belarus had been announced, our correspondents were constantly delayed, the equipment was being destroyed and the records were being taken away. And then, they are not ashamed to take a thousand dollar ransom for it. But we have become accustomed to it, we have learned to cheat this system,” says Aliaksei Dzikavitski, editor of Belsat information programs. “For example, every operator has two memory cards for the camera. If they see the police, they quickly take one with recordings out of the device, and put in a clean one. And after being detained it is important to signal about it in time – or at least have the colleagues do it. Then we would be able to muster all the forces, and the police would receive hundreds of calls, many people showing genuine interest in the fate of the arrested person. The police do not know how to react, and often they release the journalist after a fine just to keep away the potential trouble.”
Belsat journalists are so accustomed working at the public events in Belarus, that they often do not hide their identities on the microphones. Earlier there were even some funny occurrences. “Where we are, there is always a camera of security services, prosecutors, or police,” says Dzikavitski. “They are not labeled, like ours. One time a man in civilian clothes has approached our operator – but it could have been told by his looks that he was a security official. The man asked: ‘What are you doing here?’ The operator: ‘I am working – and what about you?’ The man said: ‘I am working too,’ then saluted and disappeared.”
Belsat information programs staff is more than seventy people. They cover every area of Belarus, they have correspondents in Poland, the Czech Republic, Russia, and Ukraine. These people are mostly freelancers, not full time staff members – such is the specifics of their work. In Belarus, there are underground studios, in which conversations with guests are filmed. In order to air some event live, they have to record a journalist beforehand, and then add the live broadcast. According to Dzikavitski, the conditions are also not that luxurious, compared to what the central Polish TV has. “The technological equipment is far from being up-to-date, and the studios are not very large. But the most important thing is that we can say what we want here and that we can invite important people, in order to offer our viewers objective and balanced information on events in Belarus and the world, achieving the goals we had set ourselves when creating the channel. For this, we have assembled a good team of like-minded, intelligent people, who often work not for material gain, but for our common beliefs and principles. Not everyone can withstand the conditions in which our correspondents have to work. For a Western journalist all of these arrests and persecution are nonsense,” says the editor.
The recent events in Ukraine have significantly changed Belsat’s programming. According to the channel’s editors and creators, the changes that are taking place in our country certainly influence the Belarusians. And first of all, it is the media they depend upon in assessing the situation in Ukraine properly.
“During Maidan events almost the entirety of our programs was dedicated to the protests, its participants, and the confrontations with police. Many programs and movies were removed from air in order to pay maximum attention to Ukraine,” says Dzikavitski. “The staff back in the studio was wearing ribbons in Ukrainian colors; and our correspondents were constantly on Maidan, as well as in Crimea during the annexation. Some of them even had to take severe risks, hiding in the basements to avoid death. In the studio, we worked from seven in the morning and late into the night, then stayed there to sleep and begin the next day with news from Ukraine, commentaries of Ukrainian experts and even relaying of Ukrainian channels. Now we have less to talk about it, but there is rarely a day when we do not mention Ukraine. We have a dedicated team that keeps abreast of events in Ukraine and prepares the relevant material. We also try to invite as many Ukrainians as possible to our studio: from students who study political science and journalists to prominent politicians, who often visit Warsaw.”
According to Dzikavitski, the value of successful resolving of the conflict in Ukraine would be difficult to overestimate in the whole of Europe, and above all in Belarus. “We are keeping our fingers crossed for you, for your victory – as it will be our victory too. If Ukraine develops, if it goes forward in a true integration with the European Union, it will be an argument to our ‘lukashists,’” says the Belarusian journalist. “We have no closer nation than you. If our people were to unite around common objectives, and also add Poles to the mix – imagine, what a power that would be in Europe!”