Before and after – different worlds
Just as with the rest of the independent media in Belarus in 2020, operations of Press Club Belarus were sharply divided into ‘before’ and ‘after’ the presidential election.
Press Club Belarus grew from 5 staff members in 2016 to 15 in 2021. It has become a recognized brand inside Belarus and a reputable media organization and partner for media development institutions in Europe. Apart from sharing the experience of the world-class media experts through open lectures (held online at the time of COVID-19), providing workshops, media talks, and educational courses at the Press Club Academy, the organisation also continued to monitor Belarusian media on account of their compliance with journalistic standards and unmasking propaganda, manipulations, and fake news.
Natalia Belikova, head of international programmes at Press Club Belarus, who has taken the lead in the aftermath of the Press Club teams’ detentions, recalls that “In the run-up to the presidential election, a special section of the monitoring was devoted to the ongoing presidential campaign: we analysed sources of information, key public figures in media reports and persons that media wrote about. As a result of the monitoring, we concluded that only independent media attempted competitive campaign reporting and the primary function of state media was to disseminate propaganda on behalf of the incumbent regime. All this had its impact on Belarusian society, which was becoming increasingly polarized”.
She admits that everything that happened in Belarus after the presidential elections shocked the team, with some of the members detained on August 9-12. When Belarusian independent media started publishing stories of detainees and the beatings, tortures, and abuse they had to go through during their detention, it came as a bombshell, and the state was quick to address their repressions not only at peaceful protesters but at the independent media itself.
“We started collecting evidence of repression against journalists in our project Press Under Pressure where we tell stories of Belsat, TUT.by, and many other journalists from the independent media who fell victims of state repression. In the meantime, we continued to monitor Belarusian media analysing their compliance with journalistic standards. After August, 90% of news content on state TV channels contained propaganda and manipulations, so we focused on spreading this information. We stepped up our media literacy efforts, producing analytical reports about how propaganda works and what are the major narrative strands promoted by the incumbent regime”, describes Natalia the post-election activities of the Press Club.
“Your mother has been detained by financial police”
After August 9th, the Press Club team witnessed how the space for media freedom was narrowing down with alarming speed, yet they understood that they could not stop or quit regardless of the threat of becoming a target for the authorities. They were morally prepared to take the risk and stay – nobody wanted to leave the country. The team prepared a general plan in case of detentions including contracts with defence lawyers, training on how to behave during an interrogation or a search. “Yet, it [the detention of the Press Club team members] came as a shock”, recalls Natalia.
“Nothing we did or do is wrong or illegal. All our work inside Belarus over the past five years was transparent and public. At the moment, no one is safe in Belarus. Especially, if you work for independent media. I guess the only ‘safe’ option would be to leave the country or quit your job”, she adds.
Back in the airport on December 22, Yuliya and her family were stuck at the passport control where the customs officers took them aside. They said, the family just need to take the red customs corridor and then will be free to go. In the last moments they were together, Yuliya took Aleksandra by the hand and nodded to her.
“They took me and my children first, quickly inspected our suitcase, gave the inspection certificate and released us. And I started waiting for my mother – 10 minutes, 15, 20. And half an hour later I realised something was wrong, especially because her phone was already unavailable”, Aleksandra continues to recall the last moments she saw her mom.
“I raced around the airport, all the service departments – customs control, police. But nobody could tell me anything. Then finally, I heard, ‘Your mother has been detained by financial police’.”
She left her kids to the husband and raced to her mother’s apartment, dialling her brother Peter and Sergey, the financial director of the Press Club Belarus. Their phones rang, which seemed like a good sign, but they did not pick up. Many constant calls later, Peter took up the phone, whispering, “We have a search at the Press Club office”. It was an unwarranted search though, often called an ‘inspection’, though that does not change the nature of it.
The same kind of ‘inspection’ was being held at Yuliya’s flat. A laptop, phones and cards were confiscated. All that time Aleksandra was waiting downstairs, at the entrance. In about 30 minutes, her mother came out with seven or eight people in civilian clothes. She was told they were taking her to the Financial Investigations Department, the FID.
It was already about seven in the evening, all doors at the FID were closed; a duty officer said nobody had been brought there. But we all saw light in the FID windows which remained glowing until late that night. The next morning, she went to the FID again and they told her the same thing, “These people are not here.” It looked like her mother, brother, Sergey Olshevski, Alla Sharko, and Sergei Yakupov went all missing.
“Together with Sergey and Alla’s families, we spent the next day searching for them. It was frightening. Very frightening. Only on December 23, at about three in the afternoon, I received a call from the FID informing me that my mother and brother had been detained and were at the FID. I’d like to emphasise that they were officially detained on December 23. And I hadn’t known the whereabouts of my relatives for almost 24 hours. Later we’ve found out that they spent a night sitting on wooden chairs at the FID without lawyers.”
After the initial shock and the feeling of the unknown that the remaining Press Club team was living in the first few days after the arrest, the team decided to continue doing their job. In the next few days, it became clear that their team members would remain in detention and the repressive machine would continue to produce bogus allegations.
On December 31, Slutskaya, Olshevski, Sharko and Slutsky were charged with tax evasion facing up to seven years in prison under that same article, as well as under Part 6 of Article 16 of the Criminal Code (complicity in a crime). They will remain in custody until at least April 23. On January 13, 2021, 11 Belarusian human rights organisations published a joint statement recognising the detained Press Club team members as political prisoners. The remaining Press Club team stated its commitment to the Press Club principles and declared that they will continue operations.
“We are a team of dedicated professionals, who want the best for our country. In this case, our personal and public interests are the same,” says Natalia. Once released and deported, Sergei Yakupov, Press Club Academy Director, mentioned that during the first 24 hours in detention he had a chance to have a word with Yuliya Slutskaya who hoped that Press Club would continue its operations. “At the time we issued our statement, we did not know about this, we were acting intuitively. So, when we heard about Yuliya’s words, we were only reaffirmed in our commitment to continue and saw a possibility to do so.”
Due to the COVID-19 outbreak, most of the Press Club activities went online. This unexpected positive side of the pandemic allowed Press Club to continue its projects online. The only major and crucial alteration was minding the safety of Press Club team members who were not detained. Press Club introduced advanced safety and security measures to protect the team so that the people could continue to do their job without being afraid of arrest.
The letters challenge
Yet, the pandemic also plays into the regime’s hands that uses the pretext of the COVID-19 to limit the access of the media in courts or the correspondence with the detainees. For the first weeks, neither of the detained Press Club team members received any letters, with a few rare exceptions. Yuliya’s daughter mentions that out of 30 letters she has written to her mother daily in the first month, Yuliya has received just one. These days Alla, Sergey and Peter do receive mail, unlike Yuliya, whose correspondence with the outer world is still rather limited and barely includes non-family members. Yet, even during those first weeks, Aleksandra found a way to show affection to her mother by sending packages: Yuliya could recognize her daughter’s handwriting in the sent items inventory and know that she is not forgotten.
It is essentially important to keep up the spirit in a closed-cell environment where it is only too easy to fall apart. In one of the few mother’s letters that reached Aleksandra, Yuliya describes her daily prison life.
“At 6.00 am, a short loud siren wakes you up and the light turns on. At 6.05 bowls of porridge are served. Often, I take an empty bowl and brew the porridge you sent me. I need to hurry because at 6.50 bowls and spoons are taken away. The mug is the only thing that remains for the day. Just as bowls and spoons, the mug is made from aluminium and has no handle and thus my lips get burnt even when the coffee or tea has cooled down.”
“The cell inspection is at 8.00 am sharp. By that time, you need to be done with your food, washing, changing clothes and need to generally brush up. It is not an easy task, since 7 more inmates are doing the same thing at the same time. There is very little space in the cell with the only sink and a toilet at our disposal. Therefore, we all must act as one, but we are still to learn that.”
“At the same time, one of us, an appointed duty officer for the day, cleans the cell: we sweep the floor, wash the mugs, the sink, and the toilet. The girls even manage to have time to do make-up.”
“From 9.00 to 10.00 I have my first workout: warm-up, squats, and exercises for oblique muscles, abs, back, and stretching. Many exercises must be adapted for tight spaces and some must be done right on the bunks.”
“On weekdays they take us to offices: to lawyers or investigators. Sometimes they take us for a walk. Unfortunately, we go very rarely. They only take out the whole cell, and the girls think it’s too damp outside and they can get sick. I’ll tell you more about the walk: it’s not at all like they show in American movies. Each cell is taken out into a separate small concrete courtyard that looks like a well. All you can see is the sky and the barbed wire. There is no room to move or run. And when it rains, the concrete walls become wet. Yet, if I had my way, I would still walk every single day. I try to run in place, jump, or squat.”
“Lunch is at 13.00. I eat soup with bread that you sent me, or the prison one and an apple for dessert. To occupy me I read (I managed to order two books in the library). There’s also Carnegie’s ‘How to Stop Worrying and Start Living’ in our cell. I read it for an hour a day. This, of course, is a common truth, but it helps to focus. There is also an English grammar book in the cell. I try to read 2-3 lessons a day. Well, and letters, of course. I write every day, although so far I have the feeling that letters are disappearing into space, the only thing I got was your telegram. At 16.00 I have another workout session.”
“From morning to evening, the TV is on and it is mostly Belarusian Television [a state TV channel known for its propaganda]. I can feel with my skin the thing I knew so well: without information from other sources, it is completely impossible to imagine what is really happening. And even knowing for sure that something is happening, it seems that it is not. It seems that there is peace and quiet all around, and we are isolated as harmful subjects.”
“My inmate girls joke and play pranks all the time. They make funny faces, dance, tease each other, and sing karaoke along with TV. At first, it was hard for me, but now I understand that it can be entertaining and can positively distract you.”
“Dinner is at 18.00, the lights are out at 22.00. Once the bright light and the TV screen are off, you can be alone with yourself.”
Aleksandra says that although both her mother and brother are visited by their lawyers regularly, there is not much the lawyers can do, as there are no investigative actions taking place.
“We want to continue Yuliya’s undertaking so that when our colleagues are out of jail, they could be proud of us.”
Yuliya Slutskaya knows that the Press Club she had founded continues its operations. It runs its regular activities: workshops, open lectures, press conferences, analytical club meetings, training, and educational programmes. In the spring of 2021 Press Club will launch an online learning platform Sol and re-launch Press Club Academy. They continue to collect stories of violations against media outlets and journalists, to reveal propaganda and manipulations and share their experience with other countries. In February, the team launched the English version of Press Club website, now aiming to tell their story to an international audience worldwide.
In the meantime, Press Club may lose their office in Minsk, a newly redecorated and beautifully designed loft in the historical part of town, meant to become home for the Press Club Academy students. Due to both COVID-19 and the Press Club team members detention, it is unclear when the office may return to its premises. The same unclarity veils the court hearings, as there is no news on the progress of the ‘Press Club case’.
Natalia prefers to stay positive and active. “We understand that the current political turmoil may linger for a while, that the case of the Press Club may not get to the court soon, and that the authorities may decide to keep our colleagues as hostages for as long as they can. We want the Press Club, as an institution, to continue to develop in compliance with our strategic vision and development plan, we want to preserve the organization and all our activity and continue Yuliya’s undertaking so that when our colleagues are out of jail, they could be proud of us. We hope that changes come soon and that our colleagues are released and charges against them dropped.”
You can find more stories of the Press Club members told by their relatives here.
The author would like to thank Press Club Belarus for using parts of the materials of the Press Club Belarus “Press under Pressure” project that collects evidence of repression against independent media and journalists in Belarus.