‘The time for compromise is past’: Failed strike, dismissals, and Russian journalists at Belarusian TV

The BelTeleRadioKompaniya strike was brought to an end by mass dismissals. To fill the vacancies, guest workers have been hired from Russian media, along with extremely young Belarusians who are prepared to work in television under any conditions. We spoke to people who have already resigned from BT or are planning to. They described how their professional protest ended, and who is still working for the state television company.

BelTeleRadioKompaniya (Belarusian State TV and Radio Company, BT) is a state body comprising: the national channel Belarus 1, sports and entertainment Belarus 2, cultural Belarus 3, regional Belarus 4, sports Belarus 5, international Belarus 24, NTV-Belarus, and several radio stations.

My conscience allows me to work

According to ex-employees, around 250 people work on the news at BT, all from the Television News Agency (ATN), a division numbering over 2,000 staff. A former BT director, Vyachaslau Lamanosau, told us that “Until this collapse occurred, all this brutality, many TV employees, myself included, probably thought ‘I’m making programmes about religion, about children, about music… I’m not involved in politics – that’s for the newsroom…’”

Vyachaslau says that even TV staff who didn’t support the strike resigned “because their consciences wouldn’t let them work for a company that slanders people like that”. Later on, the most active strikers were also forced to resign.

Natallya Bibikava, one of directors at Belarus 3, welcomes BT employee joining strike. Photo: Denis Dziuba / belsat.eu

Vyachaslau says that even TV staff who didn’t support the strike resigned “because their consciences wouldn’t let them work for a company that slanders people like that”. Later on, the most active strikers were also forced to resign.

Everyone we spoke to said they were not prepared to go back to state organisations under the current regime. Their places were quickly filled, however, or at least so the officials claim. To replace staff who resigned, BT has started hiring what Lamanosau calls the “young and spineless”.

“The TV’s standards will plummet because the professionals are resigning. The people they’ve hired now have no principles whatsoever”.

BT employee Hanna (name changed at her request, “because I still need to get in and out of there” – Ed. note) is sure that “They can’t all be replaced. They’ll do anything just to fill up their airtime now, to prove it’s alive. Because people do watch television, so they’re demonstrating to us that no one is irreplaceable. More importantly, they’re also showing those left behind that no one is irreplaceable. My question is: ‘Can you replace your conscience?’”

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On August 21, Alyaksandr Lukashenka announced that Russian journalists had begun working for BT. The self-appointed president explained:

“Still, you need to understand that nobody’s waiting for you. There’s plenty of competition. I asked the Russians to give us 2–3 groups of journalists, just in case. That’s 6 or 9 people from the most advanced TV channel. Let our youngsters watch how they work. Listen, those 2–3 groups haven’t arrived yet, and half of those who were ‘fasting’ and trotting around the BelTeleRadioKompaniya are back now. I said, well alright, we’ll take you back today, but we won’t accept anyone who quits tomorrow”.

One group of Russian media employees has already joined the staff at Belarus 1. During the strike, Alyona Martsinouskaya, a director from Belarus 3, told journalists that Russian media staff had arrived on two planes. She is convinced that they are “doing our [the protesters’] jobs for large amounts of money”.

Those we spoke to are also sure that the Russians are earning considerably more than the most experienced Belarusian employees. Makeup artist Lyubou Kniha heard that the new journalists were making 150,000 Russian roubles ($2,203) a month.

Hanna says that the best Belarusian video engineers were getting 2,500 Belarusian roubles ($936), while hired Russians are on 5,000 ($1,872). The journalist is sure that, at BT, “the process of lining their own pockets on the bones of others has begun”.

Meanwhile, Lukashenka claims that the hired TV journalists will not be paid by the state, and that he will seek money from friends to fund them:

“We’re not paying the Russians at all. Listen, do you really think I can’t find friends in Russia who’ll support those 6 or 9 people? So, don’t start talking about planes flying in here to drop off Russians, and so on. We don’t need that many. It’s obvious who’s fanning the flames”.

Lukashenka claimed to know the newly arrived journalists, saying they were from a “normal” TV channel, without specifying which. At BT, rumour has it that the Russian TV journalists were brought in from Russia Today, VGTRK, and NTV.

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VGTRK and the Russia Today agency stated that they have not sent employees to Belarus. It was also denied by Russia Today’s editor-in-chief, Margarita Simonyan:

“No RT employees are working for any Byelorussian [sic] TV stations. But we’re ready, if needs be, and if they ask us nicely”.

No one we spoke to has met any of the new Russian media staff yet, but rumours abound. The director Vyachaslau Lamanosau said he is aware of six Russians working for the outside broadcasting unit, who will be ready to transmit “if the studio workers engage in sabotage”.

Hanna says that Russian “techies” are already working for Lukashenko at the company because “nearly all of ATN’s video engineers and lighting engineers have walked out. […] But no one has set eyes on these newly arrived journalists”. Hanna says they only know of one person from Russia at BT – Konstantin Pridybaylo.

“He used to work with us, then moved to St Petersburg, then Russia Today. Everyone was sad when he left, but now he’s back at work, even doing the Klub Redaktorov show” (‘Editors’ Club’ – Ed. note).

If only they’d shown the truth in the past…

Vyachaslau Lamanosau is one of the few employees who is not visibly afraid to give his name when talking about what happened. This director with 24 years of experience has already left BT. He is sure that the country experienced a “watershed” moment on the main day of voting, August 9, “when they tried to deceive people in all kinds of ways by preventing them from voting”. Vyachaslau’s brother queued for five hours at the Moscow embassy, where many willing Belarusians did not manage to vote in time. At his own polling station, the former BT employee was handed a voting slip with a dot next to Lukashenka’s name. He was given a new slip.

That evening, Belarusians heard the preliminary figures: according to the Central Electoral Commission, the immovable head of state had won over 80% of the vote. That evening, the protests began in Belarus, but were broken up violently by the siloviki [militia, riot squads, internal affairs, and secret services].

August 9, 2020. A man with shrapnel wounds from a stun grenade used by Belarusian siloviki to break up unlicensed protests after close of voting. Minsk, Belarus. Photo: Alyaksandr Vasyukovich / Vot-Tak.tv / belsat.eu

At first, Vyachaslau Lamanosau didn’t go out to protest. He said he wanted to but his wife wouldn’t let him, literally hugging his knees and begging him to stay. On August 11, the day of the most violent clashes on the streets of Minsk, he finally went outside. As Vyachaslau was riding his bike past a special forces cordon, minding his own business, he got a phone call from work and stopped to answer it.

“[The siloviki] must have thought I was a coordinator, someone reporting on their location. They asked to see my phone, and one of the first photos was of my voting slip with a tick next to [Svyatlana] Tsikhanouskaya’s name. They carried on looking and found a couple of photos of me at demonstrations”.

Then the siloviki checked Vyachaslau Lamanosau’s messengers and found a chat with his brother, in which he had called the Moscow embassy staff bastards for stopping Belarusians from voting against Lukashenka. Vyachaslau was detained.

“I told them I work with them, making programmes about the militia. I know General Karayev. I was filming him a week before he was appointed minister of internal affairs. I know several high-ranking militia officers, but none of that saved me”.

Still a director for BT, Lamanosau was beaten up in a minibus and a paddy wagon, like thousands of his compatriots. When entering the militia station, a “corridor” of siloviki bludgeoned him with batons.

“We were taken to the militia station and put into a sports hall. […] 80 people knelt down with their heads bent to the floor in the ‘turtle pose’ for hours. [Guards] periodically kicked them and beat them with batons”.

There was a two-person cell into which they “chucked” nine men, with half a litre of water between them for the whole night. Apparently, mentioning the high-rankers during his arrest had influenced the siloviki; the next day, Vyachaslau was one of the ten “lucky ones” who weren’t sent to prison but released with administrative charges, 22 hours after their arrest. One of the special forces men kept the director’s bike.

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When Lamanosau returned home, he rang in to say he was “taking a break” from work, then set off for his dacha in Vitsebsk. He only found out about the BT strike when he arrived, and immediately joined in. After 24 years of working for state TV, he realised that:

“If only BelTeleRadioKompaniya had shown the truth in the past about real life in the country, then maybe none of this would ever have happened. They wouldn’t have faked elections, repressed people, or killed anyone”.

“If you have other views, you shouldn’t be working for the state media”

Belarusian state media workers went on strike on August 17, with cameramen among the first to announce it. They addressed an appeal to the national authorities, demanding “new elections instead of rigged ones, an end to the bloodshed and violence against peaceful citizens, the release of all political prisoners and people arrested at peaceful protests, and the abolition of censorship on BT”. Later, other strikers would also echo these demands.

The speaker of the Belarusian National Assembly’s Council of the Republic, Natallya Kachanava, and the presidential press secretary, Natallya Eysmant (also the wife of BT chairman Ivan Eysmant), came to meet with disgruntled BT staff.

Military guarding BT building during visit of Natallya Kachanava and Natallya Eysmant. Photo: Denis Dziuba / vot-tak.tv / belsat.eu

Currently on leave, and planning to resign afterwards, makeup artist Lyubou Kniha says:

“[Natallya Eysmant] was talking about some conspiracy theories, that everyone wants to attack Belarus, that countries everywhere are threatening us. But [Ivan] Eysmant sounded more reasonable, promising to show Akrestsina [prison], to expose the truth. […] But he didn’t keep his promise. The next day, they ran the same old news as always, totally disconnected from the reality”.

BT employee Hanna says that, during the meeting with the officials, BT staff were told: “If you have other views, you shouldn’t be working for the state media”.

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“Kachanava said that everyone was replaceable. The writing fraternity can be replaced, though it might take a while, but the techies are irreplaceable. They’re the top specialists in the country. […] The entire creative staff could even quit and it wouldn’t change a thing. […] But if the techies were to walk out, this protest would really mean something”.

Article 29, part 2 of the Belarusian law on media states: “The founder (or founders) of media have no right to interfere in the activity of that media, except in cases specified by the present Law, a decision on editing that media, or an agreement on editing that media”.

Hanna no longer feels at home with BT, where she has been working for over a decade: “The propaganda was softer [before]. It wasn’t even fully propaganda. The news was good-quality. […] Obviously it was biased, but every media has an owner…”

Example of propaganda created by BT: According to them, Belarusians addressed opposition activist Maryia Kalesnikava and chanted ‘Shame!’

The journalist is sure that “the time for compromise is past”, because what happened on August 9 was “disgraceful”:

“Even those who don’t work in the news realise that information is the main thing people need in this situation. But when it contains no information, and even that is distorted, what else can we do but try to get our voices heard?”

“Our rebellion has been nipped in the bud”

Hanna says that when staff started getting persecuted for working at BT, “our protest showed that we could put up resistance. […] We somehow inspired people”. However, not everyone who went on strike actually resigned. The journalist believes that:

“Our rebellion has been nipped in the bud by demonstrative dismissals. A lot of people have gone back to work. […] Currently, all those working for BT are supporting the authorities, and their consciences can’t be clear”.

Director Vyachaslau Lamanosau says that groups of striking BT staff have been called up to see the management, to “harass, blackmail, and pressurise them. Nice and slow, little by little, and some people have started backing down. They’re creative people, unprepared, but this repressive machinery has been honed for years and has generations of experience”.

BT employee Volha (name changed at her request – Ed. note) says that she doesn’t want to be some “propagandick”.

After ten years, she intends to resign from the company: “It’s the only way to rehabilitate my name in front of the people, at least”.

Picket by the BelTeleRadioKompaniya building. Photo: Denis Dziuba / Vot-Tak.tv / Belsat.eu

But a week ago, the journalist was still standing by the BT building with a placard, hoping for change. She explains that many of them can’t leave their jobs because they are single parents, paying off large loans, or undergoing treatment for serious illnesses. She also maintains that there is protest in the air among the Belarusian workers at BT.

“There are numerous sympathisers among those still going in to work. They’re suffering and aware of what’s going on, too, but so far they simply have nowhere else to go. […] Not everybody who’s stayed on is a horrible asshole. […] Someone came up with a motivational horoscope that said: ‘Don’t give up! Keep doing your part! […] Together you can make it work!’ There are people on our side in there, too”.

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But Volha also believes that Belarusians are “broken” after experiencing the siloviki violence:

“We’re all slightly [traumatised] right now. […] Everyone’s afraid. […] Not afraid that they’ll come after you, but afraid that you might be walking down the street and a blue minibus might stop. Maybe they’ll have orders saying you’re a ‘malicious agitator and propagandist’ and, if it does stop, they’ll drag you inside…”

But the journalist is sure that people still believe the future will bring changes, even if the road will be long. People continue to take to the streets or protest without leaving their homes: shining torches out of the windows of their flats at 10pm, chanting “Long Live Belarus”, and playing “We Want Changes!” by Kino.

Lyubou Kniha feels that:

“People have started to consolidate. It’s noticeable not only in society but also in the media, and that’s very nice. […] During the strike, [the independent channel] Belsat gave us a bouquet of roses. That was a very kind gesture. Many people have started changing their attitudes and looking at things differently because, before, it always used to be: ‘Either they’re opposition or they’re not’, and now lot of people’s eyes have been opened”.

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Arina Taranyuk, vot-tak.tv, belsat.eu