Journalists in prison: A survival manual

In the last few months, the repression in Belarus has tightened even more. Iryna Chalip, correspondent in Belarus for the Russian newspaper Novaja Gazeta, tells us about the recent attacks on freedom of speech by the secret police KGB—and about the aftermaths of the so-called “teddy bear attack”.

September 27 2012 Text: Iryna Chalip Translation from Russia: Håkan Löfgren

Last year, as I was being transferred from KGB custody to house arrest, I made a wish: “Let me be the last Belarusian journalist to end up here!” I somehow thought that if this came true, everything would be fine.

But after a year and a half, another reporter was thrown in prison in July—Anton Suryapin, a photojournalist in his twenties—facing serious charges as well. While I and my colleague and friend, the editor of the site www.charter97.org, had been accused of organizing mass unrest on the day of the presidential elections, Anton was charged with aiding and abetting the illegal crossing of Belarusian state borders. We risked 5 to 15 years in prison according to the law, while Anton was facing 3 to 7 years.

A passionate photographer, Anton Suryapin had started the site www.bnp.by already a year ago. On 4 July, he had a real scoop: that morning a small Swedish aircraft had flown in over Belarus, spreading a few hundred tiny teddy bears equipped with parachutes over the greater Minsk region and the small town of Ivenets. The teddy bears had little signs on them demanding freedom of speech for the Belarusians. This was how Studio Total, the Swedish PR agency, focused the world’s attention on the Belarusian dictatorship.

When the news of the successful ‘invasion’ spread, the Belarusian military began to categorically refute the event: there was no airplane, no one had violated Belarusian air space, and the information about the flight was an invention of Swedish freaks. But then Anton received photographs of the teddy bears in Ivenets. A schoolgirl, Yekaterina Skurat, had taken pictures of them and forwarded them on to Suryapin’s personal site, www.bnp.by, with the intention of making a photo documentary on Belarusian life. Yes, this was a real scoop! So you insist that there were no teddy bears? Please, allow us to present you with some indisputable evidence! The journalists began to challenge the army—which was easily done with just the click of a camera. What luck, right?

Anton's luck ran out on 13 July when he was approached by KGB agents. They conducted a search, confiscated a notebook computer, and then announced that Anton was under arrest and brought him to the KGB prison. After a period of 10 days, they charged him with “aiding and abetting a deliberate illegal border crossing by a group of individuals”. Anton remained in prison until 17 August. Then they released him after he had promised in writing not to leave the country; however the charges against him remained. And who knows how this criminal case might have been settled. If the Belarusian KGB could not touch the Swedes, then would not someone else have to take the blame? Could the Belarusian anti-aircraft defense system actually be substandard, despite the Russian government’s repeated reassurances to Alexander Lukashenko of its exceptional dependability: we have a common system, we are bordering on Federation territory, and not even a fly could slip through? A fly might not make it, but a single-engine airplane does just that without a problem. And if a young guy in his twenties manages to shatter the myths about Belarus’s air defense system, then he must answer for this to the full extent of the law!

However, things actually turned out all right for Anton. The KGB did not try to win him over and they did not threaten him. When the KGB officers had fulfilled their orders to the letter and arrested him, they appeared to have no idea of how to proceed with this photojournalist. For us, Natasha Radiona and myself, the situation was very different.

Almost the entire KGB staff was involved in trying to intimidate Natasha. She was 32 years old and the KGB officers were interrogating her with the most primitive methods. They told her that she would be spending 5-8 years in prison after which she would be released as a total wreck, and that she would never have children. And, of course, she would not be able to find a husband. I was never subject to coercion: the KGB needed something completely different from me—evidence against my husband, the presidential candidate Andrei Sannikov. We were arrested at the same time, and in the prison we were placed in adjoining cells, which we realized later. Since we, unlike Natasha, had a three and a half year old son at the time, there was no purpose in trying to scare me with future fertility problems. They threatened me with 15 years of detention for both of us, and while we were confined, our “orphaned son would grow up to become a common criminal” (those were their exact words). In any case, both Natasha and we were facing similar threats: the threat of oblivion. “You’re a journalist and know perfectly well the conditions concerning public information. You’ve already become yesterday’s news, especially since the world is now full of things like the revolution in Tunisia. You’re already forgotten”, the prison warden told me. In order to completely deprive us of even the least bit of information, we were placed in total isolation. We were not allowed to receive letters, which, as it happened, arrived at the prison, by the sack load from all over the world. We were denied newspapers (as were our cellmates in order to prevent a single word from filtering through the walls of the prison), we were even denied access to lawyers, because a lawyer could always tell us about events beyond those gloomy brick walls, in the world where one could simply enjoy going for a walk outside. But unlike our cellmates, we knew well that no profession in the world enjoys such solidarity as journalism. And all the intelligence services in the world would not be able to deceive us: we knew very well that our colleagues would be fighting for our liberation, as well as they could, and would keep writing to stop us from being relegated to yesterday’s news. When journalists end up in jail, other journalists will surely continue writing about them. And that is one of our professional joys. But most importantly, our very profession is a great help when trying to survive in prison. And now, after some time, I have my own survival manual for journalists in prison. This has helped me personally. It might be helpful to others as well. Because journalists are being incarcerated— this is also news for the international media, but more importantly—it is a reality. And being aware of your colleagues’ thinking about you when you have ended up behind bars makes life a little bit easier. But to really make life easier there, and to provide the strength to persevere, are altogether different matters. You have to remind yourself that you are not a newsmaker, but a journalist. You have to regard your arrest as a mission, like in a war, for instance. It is hard, since everyday conditions are agonizing; there is the threat of death and the captivity—but this is only an editorial task that has to be carried out. And the same really holds true for successful journalism. I became convinced of this when I was taken to the KGB prison: “Well, here I am! I always wanted to see this terrible place with my own eyes and figure out how things work here!”—I told myself encouragingly. You can't see this building from the street. It is safely tucked away in the inner courtyard of the Belarusian KGB. It was built during the Stalinist period and consequently named the “internal NKVD prison”. It is impossible to explain the layout of this inner prison. Because the few identified individuals who have been released from there and who have agreed to being interviewed have been unable to remember anything but the circumstances of their cells and the exercise area in the small prison yard. And that is understandable: you are just constantly too focused on interrogations, consultations with lawyers, preparing for courts, and contemplating your own misfortunes. Anything that does not touch you personally won't even make a mark in your mind. And I, who convinced myself from the very first second that I was on a war mission, avariciously looked about me when I was brought down the corridor, committing every detail, every protuberance on the wall to memory. I counted the cell doors, got information from cellmates who had been jailed for a long time and spent time in different cells, about the whole organization. And I made notes of everything in a thick notebook that my parents had brought me together with a sweat suit and a toothbrush. It seems like journalists ought to be able to manage perfectly without both computers and tape recorders. And the situation for those journalists of days gone by who were limited to working exclusively with a pen and a notepad was not at all as complicated as it seems to us today. Notepads and pens are the most dependable of aids. They don't run out of battery power, they don't get infected with viruses that erase information, they simply don't fail.

And your next-door cellmates are actually the heroes of your coming articles, since each of them has their own story. And although far from everyone is interested in having their story told—many prefer their arrests to remain a secret—the stories themselves are invaluable. And this material will often serve future journalistic research. What could be more valuable to a journalist than to be on the inside? From my time in the KGB prison, I have collected material for some serious investigations—about torture in Belarusian prisons, about how the KGB rigs cases, about methods of coercion, about how they imprison witnesses in order to coerce them to give false testimony through threats. As well as some additional concrete stories. As well as meeting some extraordinarily interesting people—and here, I am not actually talking about people on the other side of the prison gates but about those with whom I shared space in the cell, which at times was so crowded (7 people to 4 beds) that we had to sleep head to toe in each bunk bed. It was perhaps sad to have to spend time in jail, but it was not wasted time. And my occupation definitely helped me make sense of it.

Thus journalists ending up in jail for professional reasons have to remember that sooner or later they will be released. And unlike those who have attempted to break them, who have threatened, put pressure on and terrorized them, they will finally prevail. Their adversaries, on the other hand, will lose out in this game.