World Ice-Hockey Championships in Belarus: What did Journalists See beyond Sport?

The world knows little or nothing about Belarus. The ice-hockey championships opened up the country not only to tourists, but also to journalists. How did they use this opportunity?

Barring presidential elections, the World Ice-Hockey Championships was the first event in the history of independent Belarus to bring international attention to Minsk. According to Belta, as many as 260 journalists from outside Belarus had accreditation. Few, however, wrote about life outside the ice-hockey arena.

A tale of two cities

As always, two images of Belarus were presented.

Let’s start with the official version. The authorities flaunted their organisational skills and made every effort (in different languages of the world) to showcase the national pride: ice-hockey. Whereas media from Latvia (the previous hosts of the Championships) did not question the Belarusian president’s political leadership, the same is not true for another EU neighbour: Poland. The Polish team did not take part, but its media was there. And even the sports commentators didn’t forget to mention the tougher truths that were not on display in the shop window.  

Civil society offered a different vantage point. Thanks to a variety of initiatives, the world learnt about political prisoners, forced labour, punishment for free-thinking, and above all that free expression of thought could be subject to severe punishment.

Belarusian human rights defenders managed to reach western audiences. Most often, the media quoted representatives from Viasna Human Rights Centre. Actors, artists, and directors from different countries joined forces to bring light to human rights issues in Belarus in an open letter published in The Guardian, and an article in The Hill, a blog for U.S. Lawyers and policy professionals did not forget to mention LGBT rights in Belarus.

Journalists’ experiences

In March, some questioned if the no-visa regime would live up to its promises. By and large, it did. Andrei Bastunets, from the Belarusian Association of Journalists, commented at a press conference in Warsaw that

apart from a few incidents, journalists have not encountered any particular problems in their work. However, the ‘cleansing’ of Minsk was carried out with the journalists in mind. So as not to give them the ‘wrong picture’ – and to do this by not hindering the work of journalists, but trying to clear people out of the frame who could 'spoil' it.

Polish journalist Łukasz Jasina (Kultura Liberalna), a regular visitor to Belarus, said

I noticed a lot of differences – the authorities didn't seem as powerful. They let us journalists do anything we wanted, to see that Belarus is no longer and empty and sad place but a place full of people and their ambitions.

Despite gripes about endless bag searches, poorly located seats, a ban on hanging cameras from the roof, and patchy Internet access, conditions for journalists' work proved adequate. 

There were, however, a few isolated incidents in which journalists were prevented from working: a Minsk-based BBC correspondent had her accreditation revoked prior to the event; militsia intervened when a Finnish TV crew dared to interview people outside the stadium; and border guards asked a Channel 4 journalist to leave the train as his multi-entry work visa had purportedly been cancelled two months' prior to the event.

But now that tourists and international journalists have gone home, the crackdown on independent media inside Belarus has started. Svobodnie Novosti Plus, a non-state Belarusian newspaper, received a warning for its “negative coverage” of the Championships. Two more warnings within one year would effectively mean closure.

Drunken fans, delicious potato-pancakes and souvenirs – and what else?

Most of all, Lukashenka piqued journalists' interest with the idea of supporting Belarus-produced products, above all – beer and ice-cream. The image of fans holding pints of beer in a campaign, present in every photo-reportage, came to symbolise the “Volat” championships. 

Corruption – or more precisely, the lack of it – was a recurrent theme in media both inside and outside Belarus. This drew a sharp contrast to the Sochi games which sparked allegations of money-laundering by government officials. As Belarus' president first rose to power on an anti-corruption ticket, such coverage should help bolster his clean image at home. 

Media in the regions outside Minsk, however, failed to spill much ink on the event in a sign of “silent protest”. After all, it wasn't in their backyards that new hotels were built and 2,000 new jobs created. More to the point, everyone saw the Championships as Batka's personal PR project.

Hidden among the jumble of hockey symbols, important topics did not go unnoticed by outside media. Journalists explored topics ranging from the dictatorship, political prisoners, and the Championships as Lukashenka’s PR project, to attitudes to the Russian-Ukrainian conflict and the EU’s eastern policy.

Opening up Belarusian civil society

Never before has Minsk seen so many western tourists. Most likely the Championships will leave behind a certain imprint, along with the hope that Minsk can also be European. “From now on, Belarus will always be different. Her citizens will see that a colourful crowd of foreigners is better than isolation”, opined Lukasz Jasina.

Belarusians need some time to reflect on the event. This change will be noticed not only by those who have been in the West, but everyone who knows that a campaign of more than three people in one place can be viewed by the authorities as unsanctioned pandemonium.

And sooner or later, a third image will emerge that international media will rush to capture. Until then, initiatives that seek to shine a light on Belarus should continue. 

Sandra Užule-Fons, Alexandra Kirby, Solidarity with Belarus Information Office

Solidarity with Belarus Information Office monitored international and Belarusian media during the World Ice-Hockey Championships.

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