In a public rebuke to Belarus’ state-controlled media, at least 13 anchors and journalists from the Eastern European country’s government-run television channels have resigned from their jobs this week amidst growing outrage over police violence against protesters denouncing suspected fraud in Belarus’ August 9 presidential election.
Such a series of resignations is by no means the norm in Belarus. The country ranks as one of the most repressive in the world for freedom of speech, according to Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index.
The government controls all broadcast outlets and uses television and radio to promote its own viewpoint and policies. Tolerance for critical media largely does not exist, media researchers say.
Videos of Belarusian protesters released from prison with black eyes and bloody welts on their bruised bodies have appeared on Telegram and social media, rather than on state television.
The broadcasters’ representation of these protesters as violent, foreign-financed operatives and disregard for reports of police brutality went too far for some of their employees.
“I cannot work where I think there isn’t truth now,” Katsyaryna Vadanosava, a host of cultural programs on state broadcaster Belarus 3, commented to TUT.by as she left the Minsk headquarters of the state broadcasting company Beltelradio on August 13.
“Not even in my worst nightmares would I ever have thought that the soldiers [army special forces – ed] and equipment, about which I’ve talked, can be used against our own people,” fumed Vladimir Burko, host of Arsenal, a program about the Belarusian military, in an Instagram video.
“What happened to my Belarus?” asked Belarus 1 evening show host Yevgeny Perlin on Facebook.
On Instagram, Vera Karetnikova, host of the station’s Good Morning, Belarus! show posted a heart set against red and white – the colors of Belarus’ first republic that now also symbolize the country’s campaign for free and fair elections.
“This is my choice,” Karetnikova wrote.
Belarus 1 news correspondent Antonina Stankevich, who has also resigned, picked up a white-ribbon bracelet, another symbol of support for democratic elections, from women protesting outside the Beltelradio headquarters on August 13.
“It’s just that people want to resign …” Stankevich said of the departures from state media. “It turns out it’s very simple.”
The TV employees’ resignations coincide with the start of protests at several major state-owned and private Belarusian companies against both police abuse of peaceful demonstrators and alleged vote fabrication in the August 9 presidential poll.
Roughly 7,000 people have been detained since the protests began nationwide after conclusion of Belarus’ presidential election on August 9. Hundreds have been wounded, including a five-year-old girl, and one man has been killed.
Since the August 9 election, state-run television outlets,
and the BelTA news agency alike, have followed the Soviet-era practice of emphasizing a more restful reality.
One August 10 video from the independent Russian broadcaster Dozhd (Rain) highlighted the differences:
When they do address the protests, Belarusian state TV channels have echoed President Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s line, depicting protesters as drunken, “aggressive” hooligans controlled by international “puppeteers.”
“The scenario in these cases is always pretty much the same,” reported Belarus 1 in an August 11 news broadcast. “The organizers bring in people from abroad onto the streets. The on-site coordinators instruct and manage them.”
Pursuing this theme on August 10, the day after protests began, Belarus 24, using CCTV footage, focused on a group of young men, described as “29 Ukrainians,” talking with uniformed officers in the Minsk airport.
“Young guys who look like jocks suspiciously often can’t clearly explain the aim of their visit to Belarus on the eve of the elections,” the narrator informed viewers.
“Russians, and also Ukrainians, and also Poles are coming,” ONT (All-National TV) alleged on August 12.
On August 10, a talk show guest on Belarus 24 warned that foreign governments supposedly now testing “on strong, stable Belarus” what he termed a “new, dirty, but high-tech system” for “breaking” the public’s emotions.
To the show’s grim-faced hosts, the man described this “technology” as “psychographic socio-hacking” – an apparent reference to using graphics to encourage certain behaviors; a well-established practice.
One middle-aged woman, standing outside Beltelradio on August 13, had come up with her own graphic to try and induce behavior change: “Stop lying,” the poster read.
Another two women held a banner that read “I’m proud that I don’t watch BT [Belarusian Television].”
But those who have left state broadcasting do not always do so without nostalgia for the past.
Standup comedian Andrey Makayonok seems conflicted about his own decision to resign from Belarus 1.
“To tell you the truth, I’m now sitting here with a bottle of whiskey, which I haven’t opened yet, in front of me because everything collapsed for me today in a day,” Makayonok told Current Time on air on August 12. “My career in television, my career in radio fell apart.”
After hearing about police attacks on protesters from friends taking part in the demonstrations, Makayonok said that he decided that staying on the air “as a comedian, a humorist, a person who does something positive, is, for now, inappropriate.”
“The very most important thing for me,” he continued, “is the absence of these victims.”
Ultimately, Makayonok said, he decided to withdraw from an environment where “you need to have some clear-cut position that will go one way or the other.”
For prominent former entertainment show host Katerina Pytleva, though, the moment is all about having a clearly defined public position.
A June 24 Facebook post in which she complained about the detentions of journalists and others during the election campaign prompted her bosses to put Pytleva, a media veteran of 23 years, on an official leave of absence. When she realized, she said, that “the situation in the country is not changing,” Pytleva decided that she did not want “to sit silent for the sake of work” and resigned from Belarus 1.
“I want to write what I believe is correct, necessary; to express my position as a relatively famous person in our country,” Pytleva commented to Current Time on August 7.
She has since joined the citizen initiative Chestnye Lyudi (Honest People), which is pushing for transparent voting practices in Belarus.
“Belarus has opened its eyes, and it seems to me that this process is already irreversible,” Pytleva said.