After hundreds of thousands of people thronged central Minsk for the biggest-ever protest against strongman president Alexander Lukashenko’s 26-year-rule earlier this month, journalists at Zyvazda, a state-run newspaper in Belarus, devoted its next issue to wall-to-wall coverage of the march.
A few days later, Belarus’s government fired Zyvazda’s editor and sent a former minister of information to lead the paper. Within hours, the reports and photographs were gone from the website.
The protests against Mr Lukashenko, now in their third week after the disputed presidential elections, have provoked a sea change at the country’s normally pliant state media.
Hundreds of journalists have gone on strike demanding fair coverage of the protests and the brutal police crackdown against them. Several have resigned rather than stick to the party line.
“The paper doesn’t really use the dirtiest propaganda tricks, but it kind of lives in its own world,” said Irena Kotelovich, a former film critic at Zyvazda who left her job this week. “It’s one thing to ignore events when nothing’s really happening in politics and society, but it’s another when an illegitimate punitive mafia is crippling and violating people.”
The state media, however, remains a crucial tool in Mr Lukashenko’s attempt to cling to power. The 65-year-old former collective farm boss has threatened to fire employees at Belarus’s state-owned enterprises — which account for about 70 per cent of gross domestic product — who oppose him.
“If locals don’t come [to work] from Soligorsk [where Belaruskali, the country’s largest potash mining company is headquartered], then miners from Ukraine will,” Mr Lukashenko said last week. He also claimed that he had invited “6-9 journalists from the most advanced television [station] in Russia” to restore order on Belarusian state television, which is the main source of news for most of Belarus’ population.
Viewers had noticed a few telling changes before Mr Lukashenko’s admission. Newscasters began referring to Belarus as “Belorussia”, a term commonly used by Russians but almost never even by Russian-speaking Belarusians.
State TV also used footage of Mr Lukashenko’s rallies supplied by Ruptly, the news agency owned by the Kremlin’s foreign propaganda channel Russia Today.
At least one state-run channel also carried a clip in which ominous music played as pastoral scenes and smiling Belarusian children gave way to footage of a building reduced to rubble in Syria. “I’m not happy with this beauty,” the a strap line on the screen read as a picture of opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya appeared.
Some reporters who resigned after state broadcasters refused to cover police violence in the immediate aftermath of the contested presidential election on August 9 said such coverage justified their decision.
Sergey Kozlovich, who had worked as a news host and reporter on the state-run channel Belarus 1 for just over a year, said the coverage of the protests on the night of August 9 to 10 had convinced him to leave his job.
“It was very one-sided. It was official information from the interior ministry,” he said. “I wrote a statement and left. From the 10 people working in my department, four left and one was fired.”
Mr Kozlovich said he had also been influenced by the government’s decision to shut down the internet in the days immediately after the election.
“If in the past, I accepted that information was presented in a certain way, from the perspective of the state, and with an alternative [perspective] on the internet, then, in the absence of access to the internet and the alternative [perspective], the decision came by itself,” he said.
“Yes, it was an emotional decision to a large extent,” he added. “But I haven’t regretted it once, especially given what is happening now on air at Belarus 1.”
With Belarus’s security apparatus still backing Mr Lukashenko, journalists at state-controlled outlets have been frustrated in their attempts to change editorial policy. “Nobody’s on strike any more,” said Natalia Bibikova, a former Belarus 1 journalist. “They closed off the entrance to the building to us a while ago and nobody’s protesting outside. Some people just quit, others have returned.”
At Zvyazda, Ms Kotelovich and some of her colleagues attempted to go on strike, but failed to collect signatures from the 50 per cent of employees at required to make it legal.
“Only a few of us quit on principle,” she said. “The rest are going to keep working, but it’ll be a rather different environment, because they changed the management in order to put the staff under control. They might not just ignore what’s going on, but do more brazen propaganda . . . I have no idea what I’m going to do now, but my conscience wouldn’t let me stay.”