Iryna Khalip, Agnes Taile, Amira Hass, Liza Gross
Stan Honda/IWMF
IWMF Award winners Iryna Khalip (L), Agnes Taile
(2nd R) and 2009 Lifetime Achievement
Award winner Amira Hass (R), with
Liza Gross (2nd L), interim IWMF executive director, at
annual awards ceremony, Oct. 20, 2009, in New York.

Iryna Khalip, IWMF Courage Award Winner, Demands to be Heard

October 29, 2009 07:00 AM
by Shannon Firth
FindingDulcinea spoke with Belarusian journalist Iryna Khalip, winner of an IWMF Courage in Journalism Award, about the challenges she has faced writing under a political dictatorship.

“There is only one way to go ahead”

Iryna Khalip lives in Belarus where she writes for the Minsk bureau of the Novaya Gazeta, the last independent newspaper in Russia. There are no independent newspapers left in Belarus.

Over the phone, she told findingDulcinea how 15 years ago she decided to become a journalist. “I was looking for something not very difficult, like chemistry or physics—something easy and interesting,” she said, laughing. “I was only half right, because journalism is really very interesting, but not easy.”

Press Freedom in Belarus

Belarus has been a dictatorship since 1994, when Alexander Lukashenko was elected president. “Dictatorships don’t like journalists,” Khalip said in her acceptance speech last week. “They either destroy them or buy them out.” In 2003, Lukashenko altered the criminal code, making it illegal for journalists to write anything negative about the president.

A witness to and a victim of government oppression, Khalip has been beaten and interrogated, and has endured multiple arrests. Police have searched her house, confiscated her computer and deleted her hard drive. Others have suffered worse. “We lost many people who were killed, abducted, who emigrated, who lost their jobs, who lost their fight because of fear,” Khalip told findingDulcinea. Still, she remains dedicated to her work

“My friends such as Zinaida Gonchar, and Irina Krasovskaya lost their husbands. Their husbands [Victor Gonchar and Anatoly Krasovsky] were opponents of Lukoshenko's regime and they disappeared. They were killed.” 

Khalip, whose husband Andrei Sannikov, is also an opposition leader, explains that she can't stop reporting on civil and human rights abuses: “I will betray my friends. I will betray the memory of their husbands. There is only one way to go ahead.”

Many other reporters chose differently. According to Khalip’s acceptance speech, many of her colleagues either emigrated or wrote propaganda. But she does not blame them for yielding to government pressure. “When they say, ‘I have no choice, I must bring money to feed my children,’ What can I say? Nothing.” Still, she adds, “Propaganda is not journalism.”

Anna Politkovskaya

Anna Politkovskaya, a well-known Russian journalist writing for Novaya Gazeta, the same independent paper as Khalip, was murdered three years ago outside her home. “Anna was not the first murder in Novaya Gazeta,” Khalip reminds us. Three years before Politkovskaya’s murder, Yuri Shchekochikhin, an investigative journalist, was killed.

Confirming that he was murdered proved difficult, however. The medical records concerning his death were labeled a “medical secret” that even his family members weren’t privy to, Charles Gurin reported for Eurasia Daily Monitor in 2004.

Another critic, Natalya Estimirova, a friend of Polikovskaya and a human rights worker, was killed last July. Her “bullet-ridden body was dumped by a roadside,” Fred Weir writes for The Christian Science Monitor.

“The experience of Anna Politkovskaya and others makes all of us stronger, because now we have to do those things and write those articles and make those investigations that Anna will not do any more,” Khalip said.

The Future of Belarus

Khalip worries that “a trend toward realpolitik” seems to be emerging. She urges the international community to reject the status quo, “when monsters like Lukoshenko, and Ahmadinejad are invited to the international conferences, where nobody wants to shake their hands.”

The United States currently has economic sanctions against Belarus that she hopes will continue under the Obama administration. “It’s impossible for the USA that has 200 years of democracy to tolerate a dictatorial regime in Europe,” she said.

Due to its influence on world trade, the European Union also has the power to stand up to Lukashenko, Khalip explains. “If they play with Lukashenko, I think that nothing will be changed for twenty years, thirty years, for a century and our voices really will be silenced,” she said.

As for the next generation in Belarus, one that has lived through Perestroika, Khalip says, “They don’t have a fear, they know what Western democracy is. They never will live in a totalitarian country and overlook it... They will fight, and I am with them.... If you fight for freedom, for your life, your prosperity, you never will be afraid.”

The IWMF Award

The IWMF Courage in Journalism Awards “recognize heroic women journalists each year,” according to the IWMF Web site.

Two other women were recognized at IWMF’s 2009 Courage in Journalism Awards: Jila Baniyaghoob, the editor-in-chief of the Web site Kanoon Zanan Irani (Iranian Women Center); and Agnes Taile, a TV and radio journalist in Cameroon.

In addition, Amira Hass, a reporter for Ha’aretz Daily, a newspaper based in Israel, received the 2009 Lifetime Achievement Award.

Key Player: Alexander Lukashenko

Prior to Belarus’ parliamentary elections in 2008, the BBC explored Lukashenko's past, taking into account the opinions of his fans as well as of his critics.

In May 2007, the United Nations Human Rights Council denied Belarus entrance into its international coalition. “Under President Alexander Lukashenka, Belarus has one of the worst human rights records in Europe,” Human Rights Watch noted in 2007. The organization cited the arrests of peaceful protestors and opposition leaders, “politically-motivated charges of tax evasion” and the government's refusal to allow the council’s UN expert, Adrian Severin, to visit Belarus and monitor the human rights situation there.

Reference: Belarus

According to the CIA World Factbook, Belarus gained its independence from the USSR in 1991. After he was elected as the country’s first president in 1994, Lukashenko “has steadily consolidated his power through authoritarian means,” the World Factbook explains. Restrictions on freedom of speech and the press, religion and peaceful assembly are widespread.

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