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  • «For them, the events in our region are a conflict between Russia and satellite countries.» Belarusian journalist talks about visiting South Korea

    Two years ago, journalist and documentarian Mikhail Arshynski received an award for a film about the 2020 political campaign at the Hinzpeter Awards Documentary Film Festival in South Korea. And now he has been invited back to the country that until recently was a brutal autocracy and very much resembled modern Belarus. Our colleague shared with BAJ his impressions of Asian democracy, his vision of the situation in our region, and the role of the media.

    «I have never seen such a thing in Belarus»

    Mikhail Arshyn­s­ki is a jour­nal­ist from Mahileu. Almost from the very begin­ning of the foun­da­tion of Bel­sat, he worked at that TV chan­nel. As he says, it was there where he learned the reporter’s craft doing news and inter­views. For two years he worked as a spe­cial cor­re­spon­dent in Moscow.

    His first major doc­u­men­tary work was a film about a 25-year-old Belaru­sian Mikhail Zhyzneus­ki, who died dur­ing the Euro­maid­an in Ukraine.

    «When the polit­i­cal cam­paign of 2020 began, I imme­di­ate­ly real­ized where every­thing was head­ing,» says the reporter. «I was inter­est­ed in the per­son­al­i­ty of Siarhei Tsikhanous­ki, who was­n’t tak­en seri­ous­ly by the media at first. He was an ordi­nary blog­ger who spoke the lan­guage of the com­mon peo­ple and trolled offi­cials. How­ev­er, behind the exter­nal image, I saw a new type of politi­cian who attract­ed atten­tion and could com­pete with Lukashen­ka.”

    The jour­nal­ist start­ed fol­low­ing the blog­ger, film­ing his meet­ings with peo­ple, con­ver­sa­tions with gov­ern­ment offi­cials. It was a big invest­ment in the future project.

    «At first I thought it would be a film about the move­ment around Tsikhanous­ki,» the inter­locu­tor of the BAJ notes. «Then his team began to form, and ordi­nary peo­ple joined it. It was impor­tant for me to show a unique phe­nom­e­non: car­ing cit­i­zens were get­ting involved in polit­i­cal events in order to change real­i­ty. First of all, I was inter­est­ed in this social phe­nom­e­non. I have nev­er seen such a thing in Belarus.»

    The heroes of the film Don’t be afraid are med­ical pro­fes­sion­al Vol­ha Paula­va, engi­neer Aleh Maiseyeu, house­keep­er Antan­i­na Kanavala­va, who col­lect­ed sig­na­tures, par­tic­i­pat­ed in the elec­tion cam­paign, and sought to do the best for the coun­try.

    The unique­ness of the film is that each stage of the Tsikhanous­ki cam­paign (first Siarhei’s, and then Svi­at­lana’s) was record­ed by Mikhail Arshyn­s­ki, who from the very begin­ning man­aged to see the poten­tial for his project.

    BAJ calls on col­leagues around the world to sup­port the sol­i­dar­i­ty action! You can print por­traits of your impris­oned col­leagues, take pic­tures with them at famous sights of your city (not in Belarus) and post them on social media with the tags #СвабодуЖурналістам and #BecauseThe­Jour­nal­ist, and also send them to us baj@baj.by.

    «The bud­get was very mod­est. I used two sim­ple cam­eras for film­ing. How­ev­er, the process of col­lect­ing the mate­r­i­al took a lot of time, about ten months,» the jour­nal­ist says. «As a result, it was pos­si­ble to record how the wave of pop­u­lar indig­na­tion rose against the dic­ta­tor­ship.»

    From the very begin­ning of the elec­tion cam­paign, the jour­nal­ist was under a threat of deten­tion. He even had to serve sev­er­al days of admin­is­tra­tive arrest.

    «After the elec­tion, I received a sig­nal that I was being looked for,» the author of the film con­tin­ues. «At that time, I was in a dif­fi­cult psy­cho­log­i­cal state after the deten­tion of col­leagues, friends, and the heroes of the film. I was espe­cial­ly shocked by the arrest of a very close friend Daria Chultso­va. I real­ized that I would not be able to work on the film in Belarus any­more, and I imme­di­ate­ly left.»

    What festival and what Jürgen Hinzpeter?

    The jour­nal­ist man­aged to take the video archive abroad and has already safe­ly pro­duced the film. It was released in 2021.

    «I want­ed the film to be sim­ple, clear, and dynam­ic, so that an ordi­nary per­son could under­stand our his­to­ry,» empha­sizes Mikhail Arshyn­s­ki. «First of all, I focused on the Belaru­sian audi­ence, but the film was also received well by for­eign­ers.»

    At some point, he was offered to apply to the Hinzpeter Awards Doc­u­men­tary Film Fes­ti­val, which takes place in South Korea. 

    «Until then, I had nev­er applied for such awards», says the inter­locu­tor of BAJ. «This was the first attempt. I thought: why not? I did the paper­work and quick­ly for­got about it. And after a while, a let­ter of con­grat­u­la­tions came.”

    It should be not­ed that the fes­ti­val is impor­tant for the mod­ern his­to­ry of South Korea. It is named after a Ger­man jour­nal­ist Jür­gen Hinzpeter, who report­ed the events in the city of Gwangju in 1980.

    That year there was an upris­ing against the dic­ta­tor­ship that had been reign­ing for the pre­vi­ous decades. It was bru­tal­ly sup­pressed, and sev­er­al hun­dred peo­ple fell vic­tims. How­ev­er, these events are con­sid­ered the start­ing point for the democ­ra­cy. Although the city was cor­doned off by the mil­i­tary, Jür­gen Hinzpeter man­aged to get the video mate­ri­als out, and thus the whole world learned about the crimes of the polit­i­cal lead­er­ship of South Korea at that time.

    Of course, the changes did not hap­pen imme­di­ate­ly, but the first step was the upris­ing in Gwangju, and the role of the Ger­man reporter in let­ting the truth be known can­not be exag­ger­at­ed.

    Giv­ing the vic­to­ry to Mikhail Arshyn­ski’s film, the fes­ti­val jury appre­ci­at­ed the ded­i­ca­tion of the Belaru­sian jour­nal­ist.

    By historical standards, quite recently it was an authoritarian state

    Now South Korea is known as a demo­c­ra­t­ic and tech­no­log­i­cal coun­try, which pro­duces mod­ern cars, smart­phones, and robots. How­ev­er, by his­tor­i­cal stan­dards, quite recent­ly it was an author­i­tar­i­an state where human rights were sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly vio­lat­ed.

    After the Gwangju upris­ing, the author­i­tar­i­an regime last­ed anoth­er eight years. How did the changes hap­pen? Some are talk­ing about the inevitable iner­tia of those events, some are talk­ing about the influ­ence of inter­na­tion­al pres­sure.

    «Dur­ing my stay in this Asian coun­try, it was clear­ly felt that only the peo­ple them­selves can and should decide their fate,» empha­sizes Mikhail Arshyn­s­ki. «Before I went to Korea, I thought that the Unit­ed States played a sig­nif­i­cant role in the suc­cess of the coun­try. But this is not so — peo­ple them­selves have achieved pros­per­i­ty. And no one but them.»

    Despite the wars, occu­pa­tion, and col­lapse of the coun­try that South Korea has faced over the past cen­tu­ry, the state has not been destroyed and the will of the peo­ple has not been bro­ken.

    «It is impos­si­ble not to notice a lot in com­mon between our coun­tries,» the jour­nal­ist draws a par­al­lel. «Both Belarus and South Korea are locat­ed between empires, and there­fore they reg­u­lar­ly faced exis­ten­tial threats. This gave me an under­stand­ing: what­ev­er hap­pens in Belarus in the near future, it will only give us an oppor­tu­ni­ty to make our move and ensure our inde­pen­dence.»

    «The rise of nationalists» and «it’s not our business to interfere there»

    It seems that South Kore­ans, hav­ing such expe­ri­ence, must have sup­port­ed demo­c­ra­t­ic changes in Belarus in 2020. At the very least showed sol­i­dar­i­ty.

    «But it’s not that sim­ple,» sighs Mikhail Arshyn­s­ki. «The Belaru­sian rev­o­lu­tion did not lead to loud dec­la­ra­tions. The protests were received in silence. More­over, Seoul con­tin­ues to coop­er­ate with the regime.

    Accord­ing to the jour­nal­ist, it is relat­ed to the pecu­liar vision of our region which South Kore­ans have. It seems that many politi­cians, influ­encers, and intel­lec­tu­als per­ceive the events in Ukraine and Belarus as a con­flict between Rus­sia and its satel­lite coun­tries.

    «Even among edu­cat­ed peo­ple, one can hear nar­ra­tives of Russ­ian pro­pa­gan­da,» says the jour­nal­ist with a sur­prise. «Dur­ing the demo­c­ra­t­ic forum where I par­tic­i­pat­ed, one of the speak­ers pro­mot­ed the state­ment that this is «the rise of nation­al­ists» and «it is not our busi­ness to inter­fere there».

    Of course, the Belaru­sian explained that the events in Belarus and Ukraine have the same roots, and this is due to Rus­si­a’s neo­colo­nial pol­i­cy towards its neigh­bors. That this is an attempt to seize, sub­ju­gate, estab­lish con­trol in the «ances­tral ter­ri­to­ries».

    He also spoke about the ter­ri­ble human rights sit­u­a­tion in Belarus and the fate of impris­oned jour­nal­ists, includ­ing Kat­siary­na Andreye­va (Bakhvala­va). Due to the fact that the vis­it was orga­nized at a high lev­el, this infor­ma­tion was con­veyed to politi­cians, jour­nal­ists, and deci­sion-mak­ers.

    «Freedom of speech must be constantly defended»

    In the Index of Free­dom of Speech-2023, South Korea ranks 47th. For com­par­i­son: Belarus is on the 157th posi­tion.

    «But one can­not be com­plete­ly sat­is­fied with the sit­u­a­tion of jour­nal­ists and media,» believes Mikhail Arshyn­s­ki. «Free­dom of speech must be con­stant­ly defend­ed, and it is so in South Korea as well. The coun­try has a high lev­el of cor­rup­tion and strong polit­i­cal com­pe­ti­tion, which affects jour­nal­ism.”

    In par­tic­u­lar, there were per­sis­tent attempts by politi­cians to influ­ence the media more, but this instant­ly caused a wave of indig­na­tion.

    The media can be divid­ed into two groups: lib­er­al and con­ser­v­a­tive. Both have influ­ence, sup­port dif­fer­ent polit­i­cal par­ties, and cov­er events in dif­fer­ent ways.

    «It is much more impor­tant that state insti­tu­tions are not closed to the press, and politi­cians are avail­able for jour­nal­ists. This is an indi­ca­tor of the role of the media in soci­ety,» the BAJ inter­locu­tor notes.

    Dur­ing his vis­it to Seoul, the Belaru­sian was invit­ed to a pho­to exhi­bi­tion held in the par­lia­ment. It was ded­i­cat­ed to the vic­tims of the war in Ukraine. It is symp­to­matic that it was arranged by the rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the media who bet­ter under­stand the process­es in East­ern Europe.

    Pho­tographs, like oth­er doc­u­men­taries, record events for many years, to which the best evi­dence is the work of Jür­gen Hinzpeter.

    «This allows you to explore the sit­u­a­tion deep­er, and not to make a super­fi­cial sto­ry,» believes Mikhail Arshyn­s­ki. «If we talk about doc­u­men­taries, then over time they become even more rel­e­vant, as they tell about his­tor­i­cal changes in soci­ety.»

    The jour­nal­ist does not rule out that he will make a con­tin­u­a­tion of the film if the events in Belarus acquire a new dynam­ic. At the same time, he has a great desire to con­tin­ue report­ing in doc­u­men­taries and on oth­er top­ics.

    Read more:

    “I stay so that those who have been imprisoned or forced to leave have a place to return to”. Motivations of journalists who choose to stay in Belarus

    Poland Puts Sanctions On 365 Belarusians Over Journalist’s Jailing

    «We stand by the truth, we stand together!» A marathon of solidarity with the imprisoned journalists started in Vilnius

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