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Covering 'Protesting from Below' in Belarus

Franak Viačorka (pictured left), RFE/RL's first Vaclav Havel Journalism Fellow, works as a broadcaster for the Belarusian-language Radio Svaboda.
Franak Viačorka (pictured left), RFE/RL's first Vaclav Havel Journalism Fellow, works as a broadcaster for the Belarusian-language Radio Svaboda.

Havel journalism fellow Franak Viačorka explains the risks civil society groups take in Belarus.

Syarhey Kavalenka is a political activist who became a national hero in January 2010 after he climbed a Christmas tree in the city centre of Vitebsk—Belarus’ fourth-largest city—and raised the democratic red and white tricolor of Belarus’ early post-Communist period. The flag, which served as the official national flag of Belarus in 1918 and from 1991 to 1995, is widely used as the symbol of democratic opposition to current president Alexander Lukashenka. As such, it is officially banned in Belarus.

For his misconduct, Kavalenka was sentenced to three years of probationary parole. The attention devoted by human rights groups and independent media to the case established the 37-years old activist as a hero of Belarus’ opposition.

Franak Viačorka, RFE/RL’s inaugural Vaclav Havel Journalism Fellow, explains that this is a typical example of “protesting from below,” and adds that similar incidents take place in Belarus quite frequently.

Viačorka is a member of Young Front, the nation’s largest democratic youth organization, which strives to rekindle the principles of civil society in Belarus. Members of this NGO promote the education of young people and support the free flow of their ideas. Viačorka smiles when he recalls the day he became a member of Young Front. He joined the organization the first day Belarus’s laws allowed him to do so, the morning after his fourteenth birthday.Among the organization’s recent actions was to launch a campaign raising awareness of Kavalenka’s case.

The “probation” sentence handed down to Kavalenka did not put a stop to his activism. Later in 2011, when he was arrested and charged with violating the terms of his parole, Kavalenka went on hunger strike. On his first day at trial, he suddenly stripped off his shirt in the courtroom, revealing a skeletal torso of exposed ribs.

Inspired by Kavalenka’s court performance, RFE/RL Belarus Service correspondent Anna Sous composed a blog piece for RFE/RL’s Belarussian website that juxtaposed a photo of the emaciated Kavalenka with Titian's iconic painting ‘Saint Sebastian.’ Sous’ blog post on Radio Svaboda’s website came to the attention of Young Front, which promptly copied Sous’ post and distributed it as a leaflet in order to raise awareness about Kavalenka’s plight.

Viačorka notes that in Belarus, where media is strictly controlled and free expression over the air is extremely limited, the posting of leaflets is still one of the best means of disseminating subversive information.

Young Front’s use of Radio Svaboda reporting is just one face of the station’s wide-ranging and extensive cooperation with civil society groups in Belarus. The radio’s long-term effort to deliver critical information about Belarus and the world to its audience through unconventional means has also manifested itself in the form of its long-term “Liberty Library” project. This effort has seen Svaboda distribute over 35,000 hard copies of books featuring selections of Radio Svaboda’s programming. Over one million Belarusians have downloaded the online PDF files of RFE/RL’s “Liberty Library” books.

-- Kristyna Dzmuranova