Press freedom fighter Yuliya Slutskaya reflects on her eight months in prison and the future of journalism in Belarus.
Yuliya Slutskaya, the founder of Press Club Belarus and a long-time, fierce advocate of independent journalism in Belarus, was jailed last December along with four of her colleagues – including her son – and spent eight months in pretrial detention. She was honored at this month’s IPI World Congress as the 2021 IPI-IMS World Press Freedom Hero.
Belarusian authorities targeted Slutskaya with trumped-up tax evasion charges that left her facing up to seven years of imprisonment. She was arrested at Minsk airport on 22 December when arriving back from a holiday, and interrogated for 36 hours without a break.
Slutskaya and her colleagues were released in August only after signing a petition of clemency. This meant that they had to admit guilt and repay the damage caused in double in order to be released. Meanwhile, the Press Club was forced to close in July.
Slutskaya was one of many Belarusian journalists jailed for their work as part of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s brutal crackdown on independent media in the country. Slutskaya’s arrest prompted public outrage and support both in Belarus and abroad, underscoring her role as a defender of journalism and freedom of speech and the immense respect she enjoys as a journalist and media manager.
Slutskaya was named the 2021 IPI-IMS World Press Freedom Hero, but the award was also a symbolic call for the release of all jailed journalists in Belarus.
IPI Helsingsin Sanomat Foundation Journalism Fellow Ronja Koskinen and IPI Deputy Director Scott Griffen spoke with Slutskaya a few weeks after her release. She shared her experiences of her imprisonment as well as her thoughts on the future of journalism in Belarus. This interview was conducted prior to the IPI World Congress in Vienna, and has been condensed.
IPI: How are you doing?
Slutskaya: Health-wise I’m feeling good. I really enjoy seeing the horizon again. I walk many kilometers per day. I have very sharp feelings now – like the wind and the sun, I feel them very intensely. And I’m very glad when I see people. But at the same time, it’s a very ambivalent feeling. On the other hand, I’m glad and from another point of view, I am very sad.
It’s very painful for me because I realized how the people who are still in jail feel there, how they are lying on their prison beds, and this hurts a lot.
I just can’t stop being with my close relatives and loved ones. I’m with my daughter or my son all the time, and we hug and kiss each other all the time. I cannot get enough of them.
IPI: What were the conditions like in prison for you and the others?
Slutskaya: My cell wasn’t the worst in the prison. My cell was for eight people and its size was about 15 square meters (161 square feet). It was like a long room – 5 by 10 meters – and there were four bunk beds. There was a window, but it was really high and covered with shutters you couldn’t move. There was no daylight in the cell at all. That was the hardest part. We were forced to use electricity in order to see something.
Once a day we were offered to go for a walk. But it’s either the whole cell goes for a walk, or nobody at all. So it wasn’t every day.
We also used this time to develop ourselves and also learned something new. For example, at one time there was a person who was teaching Polish, so I was learning Polish. There were also people who were proficient in IT project management techniques, so I was learning that. And I taught people how to write texts.
IPI: How much information were you able to get from the outside world while you were detained?
Slutskaya: The only source of information we had in the cell was Belarusian state TV. This was very one-sided news, but now I know how state propaganda works. It wasn’t just news; there were also different opinion programs running on state TV. And sometimes the authors of these programs would give out information about the way things really were, information about real events. So we also used that to gather information. Looking back at it now, I can see the narratives of the Belarusian state TV channels and the way they changed over time.
In the beginning we had quite a lot of independent newspapers. And while we were sitting in jail, we saw how the situation of independent media deteriorated over time. All of these newspapers were shut down one by one and they stopped being delivered to our cells.
At the same time our lawyers were another source of news for us. We asked them to tell our relatives to prepare reports on major news for us.
When I got out of jail, I realized I didn’t miss anything. I knew all the news that was there. But the thing I am really enjoying are the analytical reviews. And this is what I’ve been doing lately, trying to read a lot of analytical information. Trying to think about what happened during the past months.
IPI: How did you feel when you found out your son was detained as well?
Slutskaya: How could I react? Of course, I was shocked. Later I learned that he was held in much worse conditions in the jail than me. His cell was in the basement, and there were like 25 people in there. Triple bunk beds. It was very wet there with rats and insects as well – in particular, cockroaches. So it was hard for me to realize that.
Other members of our staff were also arrested, and I knew they were held somewhere close there. It wasn’t easy for me to think about that.
Out of all the media organizations we were one of the first ones to get hit by the repression. As time passed by, more and more colleagues arrived at the prison. All these people are now in jail.
IPI: When you were given the option to write the petition for clemency and you made the final decision to sign it, what sort of thoughts were going on in your head?
Slutskaya: This was not an easy decision for me, but at the same time sitting in jail is not productive. I made this decision and asked my colleagues to accept it as well.
IPI: How did it feel to finally walk out of prison?
Slutskaya: There were a whole lot of contradictory feelings – but joy dominated. It’s also confusing that you can hug your friends, relatives, and colleagues and walk around after sitting on your bed for eight months. I hope that the fact that we were released is not just a single case and my colleagues will be able to get out of prison soon, too.
And there is again a wall between independent journalists and journalists of the state-owned media. Between 2015 and 2017 we were working a lot at the Press Club to bring down this wall, to get these two groups together. The Press Club was an open space for everybody, including the journalists from the state-owned media. But now we can see that this wall is higher than ever, and it was never like this before.
IPI: What does the World Press Freedom Hero award and press freedom in general mean to you?
Freedom of the press is one of the main things my work and the Press Club Belarus were based on. Press freedom means that there is an opportunity, as a journalist, to say everything that needs to be said.
I’m very flattered that I have been awarded this prize, but you should realize that there are people who still continue to be in jail, and they all deserve this award. Because of that, receiving the award for me is really sad. I realize very strongly right now that it’s very important to keep these journalists in the world’s focus. For me, it’s the first time in my life that Belarus has been in the world’s focus for such a long time … It’s very significant because very important things are happening in Belarus right now.
IPI: How do you see the future of journalism in Belarus?
Slutskaya: Despite everything that has been going on, I’m optimistic. I believe that time passes by. I don’t know when, but everything is going to be good in Belarus with journalism and beyond.
Because of this cold and tough training that Belarusian journalists are going through right now, it’s going to be journalism with a very high quality. Nobody stopped working; nobody dropped their principles. Everybody continued to work like they have been. And based on all of this, I think that the future is going to be bright.
Ronja Koskinen is an IPI Helsingsin Sanomat Foundation journalism fellow and Scott Griffen is IPI deputy director. This article was originally published on the IPI website. Reprinted with permission.