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About the editors

  • Ruth Spencer (EJC)
    Ruth Spencer is a journalist, Editor, producer and hails from Montreal, Canada. She has worked for the European Journalism Centre since September 2008 and has edited all three rounds of TH!NK ABOUT IT. She has production experience in print media, theatre and broadcast television. She tweets via @thinkteam and is currently based in Toronto.
  • Guy Degen
    Guy Degen is an Australian freelance journalist and is based in Germany. He travels widely contributing stories to international broadcasters and is regularly commissioned by UN agencies as a multimedia producer. Guy writes for the Frontline Club blog and tweets via @fieldreports. Guy also trains journalists in multimedia skills and mobile journalism.


Net vibes in Belarus

Published 14th April 2010 - 11 comments - 2857 views -

As I mentioned in my last post I've just been to Belarus to train local journalists in producing video content for the web.

It's media development work supported by the German government and partner NGO's. Having the opportunity to do some sort of practical development work, albeit in a very small way, was something I had not thought about when starting out as a journalist.

I really see it more as an exchange of ideas and sometimes wonder who learns more. For me, training workshops are a great opportunity to be in the company of people eager to tell you about their work, their life and their culture.

So, for the country that is often labelled as "the last dictatorship in Europe", it's a curious media landscape for an outsider to view - and I mean that from the broadest sense of media.

For instance, standing in the queue of one of the local mobile telcos, Velcom, my initial attempts with a winning smile at seeking service were repelled and I spent some 20 minutes joining another queue and watching the slick in-house advertisements on a large flat screen TV.

Like any other country with 3G networks, Velcom urges its subscribers to share their mobile content (especially photos and video); be connected with friends via SMS, email and social media platforms and take advantage of mobile internet search functions.

The questions running through my mind was: as much as these attractive services are sophisticated and aspirational, would you want to take full advantage of such technology in a country where the government looks towards China as a model for internet control; and, is about to introduce new internet decree that may make you think twice about what you do online?

From July 1, all online media will have to be registered. Internet service providers will have to keep data about the internet usage of individuals for a full year and hand over those records to law enforcement agencies if required. And, if you feel like popping in to your local internet cafe, you'll have to show identification to go online. The law also requires internet service providers to block access to any website within 24 hours at the request of government regulators.

Radio Free Europe recently reported that the official website of the Belarusian President, Alexander Lukashenko, says the decree is: "an attempt to protect the rights of Belarusian citizens, society and the state in the field of information."

The EU has stated it's a step in the wrong direction for Belarus and Reporters Sans Frontières has also strongly criticised the new internet law saying it's repressive and "liable to make netizens censor themselves".

The Belarusian Digest has this New Yorker inspired take on the law.

At the moment, online media in Belarus is one sector that seems to have more space for freedom of expression over other forms of media. An editor from an independent online magazine in Minsk told me most online media will wait to see what will happen after July 1 and then try to gauge how the new laws may be enforced. At the same time there's the sense among journalists I spoke to that the government is already heavy handed with the internet and this new law has been brought into place just in case the government wishes to use it during next year's presidential elections.

I also heard again from the personal experiences of journalists that being questioned or detained by police while trying to go about their work is common. As a recent report on the media in Belarus from the International Federation of Journalists points out, journalists and photographers are easy and visible targets, particularly at demonstrations.

Just as worrying is the current crack down on the Belarusian Journalists Association (BAJ) and its support for independent journalists. The Ministry of Justice has directed the BAJ not to issue members with press cards. It's argued that the BAJ is a NGO and not an official media organisation. The Ministry also says by offering members legal advice, the BAJ is working outside of what such an organisation is allowed to do. The Supreme Court has also upheld the warnings from the Ministry of Justice.

The right to have an internationally recognised press card is something I value as a journalist. It's just a piece of plastic with my name on it but there is something reassuring about being recognised by several professional media groups that what I do for a living is legitimate.

But getting back to the workshop, on an individual level for participants, what I am perhaps most interested in is helping them to find ways of implementing the journalism and technical skills or tools that they've learned.

It can be frustrating to hear feedback from journalists who return to work highly motivated to get cracking on new ideas or using new tools but find themselves either held up by their editors or lacking the access to equipment.

To introduce print and online journalists to producing video we took an easier lo-fi approach and used the video function on small digital cameras as well as the Kodak Zi8 pocket video cam. We also looked at live streaming video from mobile phones (lots of eyes lit up!). As for video editing, we used Windows Movie Maker which anyone with a PC has access to.

Many of the journalists I've worked with in Belarus have experience using blogs such as LiveJournal. Blogs are a great way for journalists to have a creative digital space to experiment, practice and try new things if they're finding it hard to put their ideas into action at work.

Speaking of ideas into action, wherever I go doing workshops it's encouraging to see more and more journalists using netbooks. The proliferation of netbooks is something that journalism trainers should not ignore. I'm constantly amazed at how much netbooks have progressed since I bought a little EeePC 700 a couple of years ago. Netbooks are digital tool that are potentially within the financial reach of journalists in many developing countries and are now more than capable of helping them to produce multimedia.

Still, as I look across to the little green onion icon of TOR running in my browser, I'm in two minds coming away from Belarus this time. While I'm confident that journalists I've worked with will be able to start exploring new skills, I'm concerned that in the lead up to next year's presidential elections, the medium that offers journalists a little more freedom will be under threat.


  • Iris Cecilia Gonzales on 15th April 2010:

    Thanks so much for this post Guy! I can’t imagine that happening here in my country. The media landscape in the Philippines has its own problems—big ones but we try always to fight against threats to press freedom. I wonder what journalists in Belarus plan to do about this.

  • Guy Degen on 15th April 2010:

    Iris, I think for many journalists it’s a feeling of working within a cage, and then trying to figure out how to work within and around boundaries.

    But there are pockets of inspiration. For example, check out 34 Multimedia Magazine.

  • Sylwia Presley on 15th April 2010:

    I think it depends on the technical knowledge of journalists and direction of their messages. As in case of Salam Pax, who started with blogging and moved to reporting for the Guardian, I can easily imagine the new technologies providing more tools for delivering actual facts to mainstream media willing to publish it (not necessary in the country), providing tools like TOR will be used.
    I also think technological development is unavoidable, and interestingly enough it also works for higher information management - whether governments like it or not. With better technologies and tools I am convinced that journalists will find their ways to deliver more objective news - their own way (internally), or another (globally).

  • Iris Cecilia Gonzales on 15th April 2010:

    I like the way you put that Guy….It’s a feeling of working within in a cage. Journalism is one profession where you can’t afford to feel that. It’s a dangerous feeling. Although, it’s not perfect, the last thing we would want is to feel restricted. But I agree, there are pockets of inspiration. Thanks for the link!

  • Iris Cecilia Gonzales on 15th April 2010:

    And Sylwia, I agree with you, technological development in unavoidable…though we have to be very responsible in using the tools available.

  • Iwona Frydryszak on 01st May 2010:

    Hi, I’ve just come back from Belarus. I was there during the election and of course I met all the trendy media influenced by Western NGOs and donors… I was shocked how much progressive they are - Magazine 34 and Radio Europe, I mean in Poland we do not have at all any kind of info graphics done in flash… the last and only one I have seen recently was the plain crash in Smolensk with President of Poland. Is it matter of costs? It is quite expensive to develop an advanced flash graphic Magazine 34 has. Can they afford it because of the donors? I understand that it is important to use multimedia to attract young people with the message but how they can count the influence the magazine has made?

  • Guy Degen on 02nd May 2010:

    Thanks for your comment Iwona. What was your impression of media coverage during the elections?

    I’m exactly not sure about 34 Multimedia Magazine’s funding/business model, but I can say that the 34mag editors/journalists I know are very dynamic, creative and multi-skilled.

    Having a software suite to produce Flash is one thing, but having the people with flash skills and importantly editors/producers who understand how to present multimedia materials is another.

    I also really like 34mag’s idea of distributing the magazine by CD - another simple way of reaching out to people without net access.

    On my last visit to Belarus quite a few people mentioned the Hush City project - worth a look too.

  • Iwona Frydryszak on 02nd May 2010:

    thanks for new link. It’s really cool. I will write a post soon about my impressions from elections and the trip to Belarus. I would like also to write an article to Polish media about all this flash style in Belarus. Maybe we can learn something from them in Poland smile

  • Iwona Frydryszak on 27th July 2010:

    @Guy - and do you know something like this concerning Palestine or in Israel/oPt?

  • Guy Degen on 30th July 2010:

    hi @iwona - do you mean something similar to 34Mag?

  • Iwona Frydryszak on 30th July 2010:

    I mean infographic about Palestine. It’s more about multimedia output, than idea behind. More educational it is it’s better. I find one in Czech Media but it’s commercial one.

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