Eduard Melnikau: Focus on Internet-Tailored Products and Grassroots Journalism
Belarus Digest interviewed Eduard Melnikau, founder of the first independent Belarusian-language TV channel Belsat. Currently he is a Member of Board of the Belarusian Association of Journalists and one of the Belsat program producers. His TV-studio VISATA, based in Lithuania, produces TV programs such as "I Have the Right", Talk Show “Forum" (a co-production with Inforum), "Unknown Belarus” documentaries, and others.
We talked about the effectiveness of Belarusian exile media, ways to increase access of Belarusians to independent information, and how to make video products more attractive and Belarusian journalists more prepared.
BD: How effective are foreign broadcasts to Belarus?
It is difficult to measure and I only know approximate figures for Belsat. According to various estimates there are around 700,000 Belarusians who regularly watch Belsat and around the 400,000 who watch it from time to time. Belsat is particularly popular outside of Minsk. Because people do not have well-developed cable networks, many purchase and install satellite dishes outside of major cities.
Other broadcasters such as Euroradio, Radio Liberty and Radio Racyja also have several hundred thousand listeners according to various estimates. Given that the Belarusian population is over nine million people, much more needs to be done.
BD: What can be done to improve the reach of independent media?
I think the main focus should be on development of content for Internet with a particular emphasis on multimedia products such as video. According to a poll conducted by Genius, in February there were over 1.5 million ADSL users in Belarus. In October the number was already 2 million. The development of the internet is very rapid in Belarus.
This is why it is important to encourage development of content, particularly video and audio tailored for internet users. Already television sets can be connected to the internet to watch TV programs and IP television flourishes in many regions of the worls. In my opinion, this should be the main direction of efforts in Belarus.
Internet video format means relatively short clips -- five to ten minutes which can then be broadcasted on Belsat and uploaded on Youtube. Independent groups can develop multimedia products and then give or sell them to those who can deliver them to the audience. The more competition and diversity between such groups the better.
IP television requires investments and technical skills which Belarusians today lack. But the internet may soon replace traditional radio -- at first it will supplement it and then can replace it altogether. And this does make sense because media products become more customizable and allow more interaction with the audience.
BD: What is happening with Belsat?
Belsat is a part of Polish television and exists only because of the will of the Polish leadership. It was a very important step to deal with the information hunger in Belarus
But because Belsat is a part of Polish state television, that puts certain limitations on its activities. Also, not everybody in Poland is supportive of the Belsat idea. Recently a group of Polish public figures published an open letter in which they stated their opposition to using the Belarusian language on Belsat. Instead, they proposed to use Polish and to focus on Western Belarus which used to be a part of Poland until 1939.
Because it is state television, there is often not enough flexibility and serious bureaucracy barriers. Belsat is a state entity of Poland which is funded by the Polish government. Many foreign donors cannot fund a state entity. In addition, as for any state structure, the funds are at times not used effectively; they have no flexibility. This is why I believe that it would better to allocate funds not only to Belsat in principle, but on specific projects, which will be implemented by specific known figures.
BD: You said that Internet is becoming more important - how can Belarusian media and donors react to the it?
It is very important to support independent multimedia projects - there is a great need for it in Belarus and it is possible to satisfy this need. For instance, a good idea could be to create a series of video clips on various topics before the parliamentary elections in Belarus. Such video could subsequently be uploaded on Youtube, independent media and opposition web sites.
These materials would be newsworthy and offer insights into the real life of Belarusians as seen by Belarusians. Not only coverage of political actions and Lukashenka's statements, but also of daily troubles of people, their personal stories. It may sound obvious for the Western audience, but in Belarus there is a serious lack of such materials and of grass-roots journalism. Donors could support independent Belarusian producers and Belsat, radio stations and independent web sites would disseminate this information using their infrastructure.
Donors could find and support producers of video content which operate as legal entities on the territory of the European Union. It will be easier to work and to monitor such organisations. Working through entities registered in the European Union would also allow it to be outside of surveillance by the Belarusian security services, but under control of European mechanisms.
BD: Do you have other concrete ideas?
We have recently prepared a number of programs in the “Belarusian Encyclopedia” cycle aimed at strengthening Belarusian national identity. Ignacy Domeiko, Francisk Skaryna and other famous Belarusians (including figures of the 20th century as well as contemporary figures) are the focus. Belsat is unable to produce this cycle, but I believe it is very important for Belarusians to identify as a European nation and such programs could greatly facilitate this progress.
Another idea would be to remind people about the brief period of relative democracy which Belarus enjoyed in the early 1990s. A program cycle titled "Belarus 20 Years Ago" could remind people about the days when Belarus had an independent parliament, media and the rule of law. Many in contemporary Belarus do not remember times when there were active political parties in Belarus with competing agendas and real chances to get into the parliament. That was the period when elections results were not fixed but actually determined by the people.
At that time Belarus was visited by Western heads of states such as Bill Clinton and only a decade later it became isolated internationally. It would also show Lukashenka's path to power, that there was a real and massive resistance against the suffocation of democracy in the 1990s. These are important stories to tell which will improve the confidence of Belarusians that one day they can Iive in democracy again. The cycle could consist of 5 minute video stories run in between other Belsat programs.
I want to underline that we need healthy competition of such projects supported. Because it is impossible to raise money for such projects in Belarus, they should be supported by international donors. And, as a matter of fact, such projects are not particularly expensive but with the right people and good management they could be truly effective.
BD: What else could be done to ensure that Belarusians have access to independent media?
It appears to me that these days donors tend to support more seminars, conferences and summer schools. This is very important too because we all experience qualified staff hunger and people need to be trained because such training is often unavailable at the usual institutions in Belarus. Those who work for the state media, even after they leave, act more like riot police than journalists.
It is also important for us to raise a new generation of Belarusian journalists. Many journalists today just use the internet to dig up stories and most political news revolves around what Lukashenka said on various topics. Journalists often do not try to look at ordinary people, to what is actually going on in real lives of the majority of Belarusians - their problems, aspirations, hopes and disappointments.
In the future I think it is important to increase efforts to train Belarusian journalists and stimulate competition between various producers of internet content. These media products, focused not only on Lukashenka and dictatorship but also on everyday life, could then be actively disseminated on Youtube and social networks as well as though traditional media such as Belsat or independent radio stations.