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.