For many years, Belarusian journalism has been divided into two camps. One praises Aliaksandr Lukashenka and all his actions, supports the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and talks freely with officials. Journalists from the other camp face real problems, endure torture, fines, and searches, end up in prison for huge sentences and flee the country, becoming refugees. A similar story happened to Tatsiana (name changed because of security reasons). She had been working in the state and independent media in Belarus before she left the country when the protests against Aliaksandr Lukashenka began. Now that Tatsiana is a refugee in Lithuania, she cannot return home because the opposition edition, for which she had written, is recognized as an extremist formation. And for this, Tatsiana faces up to 10 years in prison. We talked to the Belarusian refugee about her work in state propaganda in Belarus and her new life in Lithuania.
— Tatsiana, how have you chosen your career in journalism?
— My childhood was accompanied by the news from the three channels of the old TV set. While my classmates were watching cartoons and series about vampires, I was listening to reports and dreaming of being a reporter. I wanted to meet celebrities and travel a lot. When I was 10, I started to write short articles for our local newspaper. Relatives enjoyed my texts and said that I’m talented, I write wonderfully, and need to do it often. My pen gave birth to several articles about the school camp, my teachers, and my best friends. Later, I started to publish my writings in republic newspapers, where I got money for my articles and won some competitions for young journalists. In the 11th form, I began cooperating with the leading Belarusian newspaper for teenagers because I needed to create my portfolio for the admissions committee of the Faculty of Journalism. I entered the faculty with the third-best result among all applicants. I have heard that Belarusian students have to work forcefully for two years after graduation. It is mandatory labor, where the student, I can say, returns the money spent by the state on his or her education. And the authorities solve the problem with the lack of personnel in low-paid jobs in the village or town, where there is no accommodation or entertainment. But at the age of 17, the scary stories about compulsory work in district newspapers, and articles about milk and grain yields were not frightening — it seemed that everything would change before my graduation.
— But in the end, you had to go to the state newspaper. Did you have an opportunity not to work forcibly for two years or to go in a private edition?
— To avoid mandatory directions to a government edition (sometimes also in a small town), students are encouraged to find and pay the university about 10,000 dollars within six months. After that, they can get the right not to work forcibly for two years. It was impossible to get a part-time job at an independent media. In my graduation year, we were told that no one would be allowed to work in private newspapers, channels, or Internet portals, and we were asked to bring requests for jobs only from state media. This whole system is somewhat like serfdom… My family had no way of paying the university for my freedom. Fearing that my parents might be repressed if I refused to work for two years or pay, I decided to go to a state-owned publication after all. I did my best to stay in Minsk and became a journalist for a newspaper that writes about agriculture. It seemed a harmless option to me: I thought that I would not have to lie on the pages of a publication about the countryside. I believed there would be no need to praise the authorities, write propaganda, and gloss over facts.
— What obstacles and difficulties have you encountered while working for a government newspaper?
— I remember that one time, instead of a problem material about homeless animals, I had to write a report about sales on the Kamarouski market. I have suffered, writing this text under threats from the deputy editor-in-chief not to hire me. But the material about homeless animals appeared after days of explanations and negotiations. According to the request of the deputy-in-chief, I have written about how animals become people’s enemies and how our government fights against them. I also remember my work on the material about student dormitories in Minsk, where I tried to write about bad housing conditions. It was confusing that students had to fight for the only shower in the basement. But the editor-in-chief asked me not to mention this, and I created an article about cheerful leisure time in dormitories. One more illustrative case happened when a famous Belarusian skier, a participant in seven Olympic Games, Siarhei Dalidovich, sold Olympic items at a charity auction and donated money to an orphanage. I wrote about it, but this text wasn’t published without any explanation. Only after two years, I understood that the reason was Siarhei’s position against Lukashenka. And one day, the editor-in-chief suggested writing my column about people who turn scrap metal into working tractors and cultivators. Now I understand how humiliating it was because the heroes of my articles usually had no money to buy machinery for cultivating their gardens, so they had to look for scrap metal at dumpsters or beg agricultural factories for unnecessary details. But at that time, I haven’t pay attention to it. In our edition, women journalists couldn’t write, for example, about the army, the police, and rescuers. Once I wanted to prepare material about a tank battalion, but the main editor-in-chief didn’t allow me to go to the military unit.
— What other duties, apart from journalistic, have you been forced to perform?
— From the second week of my job, I was assigned to be on duty for the edition. In pair with a more experienced journalist or editor, I used to proofread drafts of all 16 pages, correct typos and inconsistencies, check with the layout department and then sign the corrected and finished pages. After all the drafts had finished, I took them to the typography, where the newspaper was printed in colour. Here the journalist checked each page once more. It was common for me to stay at work for an hour, or even two, because of the duty. And if Lukashenka held a meeting in the evening, we had to wait until midnight for the final version of the newspaper. Once a fortnight, I used to stay at work late, and this time was not paid for or compensated in any way. If somebody found a mistake after the publication of the newspaper, the person on duty was deprived of his bonus. In addition, I had to participate in a subscription campaign. I had to go to the districts designated by the editorial office and urge people to subscribe to the newspaper. My bosses used to issue plans for each district (how many individual subscribers the newspaper should have and how many copies the enterprises should subscribe to). It was humiliating to come to a town with an average salary of 150-200 euros and ask to subscribe to the newspaper for 20 euros. I have chosen districts close to my parents’ place of living and haven’t spent money on hotels (usually not the coziest) and food. During my trips, I have written articles that I am still proud of: about a cranberry gathering in a bog or two women living alone in a village. Only one of my districts met the subscription plan. I was repeatedly reprimanded by the first deputy editor-in-chief for it. He said that my trips were useless and demanded to call the district executive committee and the post office. I always got upset because of the pressure on me.
— What relationship did you have with your superiors and colleagues?
— I had a great relationship with the team. We went to lunch together, celebrated birthdays, gave each other gifts, supported and helped each other, and suggested topics for publications. However, this did not work out with my superiors. More often, I had to listen to impolite words, unfair reproaches, insulting and even threats of deprivation of bonuses and dismissal. Every fortnight on Tuesdays, the editorial staff met for joint briefings. I have hated this event and always tried to get away on trips. The briefings lasted about an hour, and our editor-in-chief often scolded than praised us. He was often the only one to speak, and his talking points were always the same: “not enough materials”, “I like it when people work seven days a week”, “if you don’t care about the newspaper, do you have a soul?” The editor-in-chief chose one employee and reprimanded him or her in front of the whole staff, threatening the loss of awards and dismissal. There could be various reasons: unsuccessful articles or photos, a refusal to go on a business trip, a desire to rest on a legitimate day off, or a sick day. I was bullied too because I had not written any material to the website during my holiday (it was an obligatory condition for the newspaper’s staff). It turned out later that the website staff was not too upset if we did not send anything to the website, but I was deprived of my bonus for this. The attitude of the superiors was particularly unpleasant when I was offered a position in the Internet projects department of our newspaper and decided to leave. It was not easy. First, there was a conversation with the deputy editor-in-chief and his words “what are you up to?”, “you understand nothing about journalism” and “do you think the newspaper is a bygone era?” Then there was a conversation with the main editor-in-chief. He said he was waiting for my gratitude for being “picked up off the street”. Then a period of ignoring me has become. Nobody called me to the joint briefings and invited me to the meetings, and I was not given assignments. I went off to the department of Internet projects, which was waiting for my transfer, and worked there, hardly ever coming to my previous office. And when I finally transferred, I became happy.
— But did you have positive moments in your job?
— I also had an outlet in the newspaper, a column about Belarusian television projects. There were no projects like “The Voice”, “Dancing with the Stars”, or other entertainment shows in our country, but the world of TV was still attractive to me. I wrote about the “Junior Eurovision”, the national cuisine project, the weather forecast program, the shooting of clips about the war, the news shootings, and the casting of presenters. There was a certain freedom and closeness to the world of television. I also hoped that Belarusian TV would inevitably have its talent shows where I would work. My best time was in the position of a news editor in the department of Internet projects. The working conditions were wonderful: a young team, flexible schedule, opportunity to work only with the news, to do translations of texts, to take the topics of my own choice. Every month I worked one week from my parents’ home. I also visited two concerts of my favorite singers for free and reported on two extreme races. The job allowed me to take four days off in a row and go on a trip. Of course, there were some rules: to write “President” and “Ministry” only with capital letters, to choose photos carefully in order not to show Natallia Kachanava, the head of the Council of the Republic of the National Assembly, in an unfavorable light, not to delay the publication of news about Lukashenka. But our editor-in-chief, a young woman, protected us from politics, could always listen and support us, and defended us at meetings with the superiors. We celebrated birthdays and holidays together, listened to music, and discussed Internet trends and TV series. I still remember many funny quotes from my colleagues. And, to be honest, at the time, I had no thoughts of quitting; I was about to extend my contract.
— When did you first think about dismissal?
— This happened after the coronavirus pandemic had started, and our editor-in-chief left the job. The new boss was far from favorable, especially to the girls. My colleague and I were constantly under his radar — we were given work on the most difficult news, and we were scolded and reprimanded for our every fault. He often used foul language in relation to us. The reason could be anything: if the news about Aliaksandr Lukashenka comes out a minute later; if there is the illusion of horns on the photo with him; if we published an article about a celebrity who once spoke negatively about Lukashenka; if the text hints at criticism of Lukashenka; if a mistake is in an article about Lukashenka, the parliament or the ministry. On one occasion, I wrote the wrong word, and this caused a showdown at the level of the Central Election Commission. With the beginning of the coronavirus, we were no longer news journalists — we became soldiers in the information war. In April 2020, we were writing about how the world was emerging from the coronavirus pandemic, what the right path was chosen by the Belarus leadership when Lukashenka allowed not to use masks, how quarantine contributes to increased morbidity and mortality. After work, we watched programs on national channels and turned the words of officials into text. We didn’t get money for it. Here are just some of the quotations: “The whole world is looking at Belarus and Sweden who have gone the other way”, “Many countries regret having closed for quarantine”, “If the mother-to-be is healthy, it is advisable to visit the antenatal clinic less often”. I felt like a monster writing that the coronavirus was safe and asymptomatic — in my hometown, 17-20 people died in a day. To prove Lukashenka’s right position, the boss did not allow remote working, despite requests from the team. Only after a few cases of coronavirus, he heard us, and we started working from home. It was easier to cope with the pressure in the collective.
— In 2020, not only the coronavirus happened, but also the presidential elections in Belarus. How was your work within this circumstance?
— It was a new challenge and another moment after which I realized I would not work there. Every day I posted three, four or more texts with the opinions of well-known Belarusians, deputies, teachers, doctors, and workers about how important it was to keep Lukashenka’s chosen course of development, that without him, our country would disappear, and people would become poor, that there were many opportunities in Belarus, that Belarus is more democratic than European countries. These videos were being stamped by state channels. The state propaganda was not ashamed to use even children who said they had everything thanks to Lukashenka. It was a shame to put my name under such articles, and I didn’t do it. On the other hand, we were not allowed to write about independent candidates for the presidential position — only in a negative way. For example, when one of the opposition candidates was detained, we had to describe him as having been previously convicted and prosecuted. When my boss personally asked me to write this, I got hysterical. But then I thought: come on, you have only a few weeks left before the end of the contract! And I decided not to escalate the conflict with my boss. And to clear my karma, I started writing under a pseudonym for a non-governmental Internet resource, as I could not do so under my real name for security reasons.
— What was your departure from the state propaganda? How did your bosses take it?
— When I announced my decision to leave, no one was happy. At first, the head of the Internet department tried to persuade me to stay, but I explained that there were circumstances against which I could not go. Then I was summoned to talk to the director, but I didn’t go — I was afraid I would be pressured and intimidated. I was not disturbed anymore — my last days were quiet. I translated scientific and entertaining texts from foreign websites, made tests for my new job and prepared for my forthcoming emigration. I had no problem signing my bypass sheet and getting my workbook back. After the dismissal, I was going to pursue a career in journalism in one of our neighboring countries with a higher level of freedom of speech. I loved (and still love) this country, know its language well, and I was confident that things would get well. In this country, the news of the Belarusan protests caught me. Then I found out from my former colleagues that my boss ordered them to collect some dirt on me and my colleague, dismissed on the same day as me.
— Please tell us how you have become a refugee in Lithuania.
— Unfortunately, my journalism career was not successful in the country I have chosen. I couldn’t think of my life while Lukashenka’s forces were terrorizing Belarusians. And it was a priority for me to help Belarusians, so I came to Lithuania, where I started cooperating with one of the Belarusian opposition organizations. I wrote texts about repression, torture in prisons, fates of political prisoners, maintained its social networks and translated texts into English. I had my series of materials, and I enjoyed my work. Later, however, repressions started against the organization. First, its leader was put on the list of terrorists in Belarus, then the website was closed, then social networks were recognized as extremist, and later, the organization was recognized as an extremist formation. In short, I realized that it was dangerous to return home, so I applied for asylum in Lithuania. I have now received refugee status, but, for personal reasons, I am not working as a journalist yet.
— One last question: do you keep in touch with any of your colleagues who have remained in state journalism in Belarus? And how is the publication where you worked living now?
— I do not communicate with my former colleagues, but we subscribe to each other on social media. Colleagues who supported Lukashenka now occupy higher positions, travel around the former Soviet Union. As far as I know, the newspaper’s staff has changed completely, even the deputy editor-in-chief is different now. The newspaper I used to work for has turned into a source of propaganda: its pages are full of lies about the hard life of Europeans and refugees from Belarus abroad. They say that those who left Belarus betrayed their homeland, that there are a lot of gays in Europe and Ukraine, that children are brought up as Nazis here, and all people talk about very expensive food and items. Speaking of the website, my colleagues quit after the outburst of violence in the streets in August 2020. Many have moved on to independent journalism, and some, like me, are now refugees. And I am glad that that work is now just a memory.
Tatsiana is now on the way to her new life without fear, pressure, repressions and prohibitions. But many young Belarusians still face forced labor and have to work mandatory for two years in state propaganda. Lukashenka is ready to destroy them, to break their psychics and souls, to turn them into the new soldiers of the information war. He needs them because now propaganda is the only way for him to support his image.