“Our leaders know everything about the customs union and what cooperation will mean for them, but neither we journalists nor ordinary people know anything at all. That’s why it is so important to meet, discuss, and have an opportunity to exchange experiences,” says Alina Suravets, who is Vice President of the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ).
Five years ago Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan formed the Eurasian Customs Union to increase cooperation and reduce customs obstacles. At the beginning of this year the union was expanded to include Armenia, and Kyrgyzstan is in the process of joining.
But what do the people of these different former Soviet republics know about each other, and how much do they report from their neighboring republics? The answer is very little: almost all information is about developments in Russia, and if someone in Belarus, against all odds, should learn something about Kazakhstan, it is filtered through Russian eyes.
On the initiative of the BAJ, Fojo and the Kazakhstani media organisation Internews held a seminar in Almaty, with journalists from Kazakhstan, Russia, Belarus, and Armenia participating.
“We know quite a bit about developments in Europe, but except for Russia we know almost nothing about what is happening in the other former Soviet republics,” says Alina Suravets, the BAJ vice president.
One important result of the seminar are the new contacts which were made and which will serve as foundations for both journalistic projects and for increased exchanges on issues of rights and security for journalists.
The situation in the four countries differs in many ways, but all are characterised by varying degrees of restrictions on the freedom of the press; from Belarus, where the situation is worst, to Armenia, which probably enjoys the most freedom. In Kazakhstan most journalists know where the “line” is drawn about what is possible to report on. When journalists in Kazakhstan are imprisoned, which happens quite often, it is seldom formally an issue of freedom of the press, but rather they are convicted for committing “ordinary” crimes like rioting or libel.
Yuri Manvelyan, editor-in-chief for the online Armenian newspaper Enpress, said that the situation in Armenia differs in many ways from the other countries, not least because the Armenian media are obsessed with writing about the country.
“If our media mention Kazakhstan, it would be because the president there spoke about the genocide of Armenians or the conflict with Azerbaijan,” he says.
This was Yuri Manvelyan’s first visit to Kazakhstan, and he says he sees many opportunities for joint journalistic projects.
“For example, the so-called Yukos scandal has ramifications in several of our countries, and we could work together there in interesting ways,” he says of the controversy over the Russian government’s treatment of the bankrupted oil and gas company.
For his part, Grigory Nekhoroshev from Russia sees several parallels between his country and Kazakhstan.
“Kazakhstan plays an important role for integration among these countries,” he says. “Just as Russia, it is dependent on raw materials and oil and gas production. So by meeting journalists here and building new networks I can follow and understand trends and tendencies in the region in a better way than before.”
One interesting question which came up several times during the seminar was reporting from Ukraine. Several of the journalists and editors who took part in the conference had sent reporters to Ukraine to try to get a picture of the situation there.
“For us it is important to have our own team covering what is happening in Ukraine,” said Paryz Baitenov, a freelance TV journalist in Kazakhstan.