Journalist Anna Kaltygina holds back tears as she remembers fleeing Belarus after security services raided the outlet where she worked and arrested its editor and staff.
Now based in Kiev, the capital of neighboring Ukraine, she heads a team of journalists determined to continue covering their authoritarian homeland from exile.
Kaltygina is one of a growing number of Belarusians who have taken up residence in Ukraine after last year’s mass protests against Alexander Lukashenko’s regime.
In power since 1994, the mustached strongman has jailed hundreds of people since protests against him erupted in a contested election last August.
He also presided over an unprecedented crackdown on media and rights groups that spanned Belarusian borders.
This summer, Western governments, including the United States, slapped Belarus with multiple rounds of sanctions.
The Lukashenko regime has been accused of trying to force a Tokyo Olympics sprinter to return home, and some blamed the suspicious death of a Belarusian activist in Kiev on its KGB security services.
In May, Minsk forced a European flight to arrest a dissident, sparking international outrage.
For Kaltygina, the unrest began the same month, when the country’s main independent news site, Tut.by, where she worked, was shut down. The KGB raided employees’ homes and arrested 15 people, including editor-in-chief Marina Zolotova.
Authorities said the move was part of a tax evasion case, but there is no doubt that the popular website has been targeted as part of the crackdown on dissent.
Since moving to Ukraine, Kaltygina and several other colleagues have launched a new media website called Zerkalo, or “mirror” in Russian, to continue their work.
Writers and volunteers are scattered throughout Ukraine and EU countries that do not reveal their identity for fear of reprisals against their families back home.
– ‘Do not give up’ –
Belarusian authorities have already blocked access to Zerkalo’s website in the country.
But the content remains accessible through an app and on Tut.by’s old social media accounts that still exist.
Since its launch in July, the new medium has welcomed around thirty volunteers, including ten journalists.
Kaltygina declared that “the main objective” is to do “everything so that a new Belarus emerges”.
The 41-year-old said she wanted her imprisoned colleagues to know “that we have not given up.”
While she thinks she is safe in Ukraine, Kaltygina is nonetheless cautious.
The death of Belarusian activist Vitaly Shishov, found hanged in a park in Kiev earlier this month, has shaken the Ukrainian community of Belarusians hostile to the opposition.
Kaltygina said she avoids “questionable events”, does not share the addresses of volunteers and “warns” her colleagues of her travels.
– A “risk” for families back home –
Zerkalo journalists fear that their families and friends will be punished because of their work.
Alexandra Pushkina, public relations manager at Zerkalo, said the launch was a “risk” for former Tut.by colleagues who remain in Belarus.
“For various reasons, such as money or family, they couldn’t leave, many stayed,” said the 30-year-old.
Wearing a red and white pendant representing the colors of the Belarusian opposition, Pushkin said that “none of them” felt completely safe.
The outlet does not employ anyone living in Belarus, which journalists say can make reporting difficult.
“We were very afraid that we couldn’t write about Belarus without being there,” Kaltygina said.
But the editorial team relies on readers in Belarus providing news and visual content, a collaboration Kaltygina calls “heartwarming.”
When inquiring about the conditions in a notorious Minsk detention center, Kaltygina received “dozens of messages” within hours.
Belarus ranks 158th in Reporters Without Borders’ world press freedom ranking, which qualifies it as “Europe’s most dangerous country for media personnel”.
© 2021 AFP