In times of conflict and revolution, the lines between investigation, journalism and activism can often overlap. Hanna Liubakova, a Belarusian journalist in exile, talks to us about her experience treading those lines and how her work has become something much bigger than just a job.
Some things become more important when you face such challenges as we face in Belarus. When the country is losing sovereignty and might lose independence, and when you just cannot go back, because it's dangerous for you. So other things become more important and you do not define your work only as a profession.
About the speaker
Hanna Liubakova is a journalist and analyst from Belarus. She is a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council. Hanna has written about the latest developments in Belarus for The Washington Post, The Economist, Deutsche Welle, and other international outlets.
She started her career at the only independent Belarusian channel Belsat TV, banned by the regime in Minsk. Liubakova reported in four languages from various countries and regions, including Belgium, the UK, Poland, and Chechnya. She is currently writing a book about Belarus.
Liubakova is widely recognised as one of Belarus's leading voices of the free press. Her coverage of the country's protests against the authoritarian regime of Aliaksandr Lukashenka garnered significant attention. Following the revolution, Hanna was forced to flee Belarus and later learned she was on the regime's wanted list. Despite this, she continued to report on the people's resistance, which became even more crucial amid the Belarusian regime's participation in the war against Ukraine.
Liubakova has been shortlisted for the 2023 One Young World Journalist of the Year Award. In 2021, Liubakova was a European Press Prize finalist. In 2019, she was the first fellow from Belarus chosen to participate in the World Press Institute Fellowship in the US. Hanna holds an MA with distinction in International Journalism from Brunel University London, where she won the Peter Caws Prize for best postgraduate dissertation in 2017. She also received the Vaclav Havel Journalism Fellowship at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in 2014.
As a child, I was a very introverted child and I really liked reading. I had some chronic illnesses and I often had to stay at home alone. And what would you do at home, like for the whole day? Of course, you can play, but then you get bored and then you read a lot. So I had a lot of those encyclopedia books at home and I read them. So, the world was really full of questions and I needed to know all the answers to them. And I think this sort of interest, this curiosity is something that anyone, as a journalist, as an investigative journalist should have.
My name is Hanna Liubakova, I am a Belarusian journalist in exile. I think my work can be divided into several parts. Most of it is public, this is, these updates, information that I publish about Belarus, pieces of analysis, commentary, these constant updates on Twitter or any other forums that help me explain the situation in Belarus to the international audiences. There is also the work for the Atlantic Council, this is more analytical stuff, non-public briefings, non-public strategic sessions, and again, updates, analysis for Congress staffers and so on; it's mostly about the American audience and policy makers. I also consult, I also help with recommendations of policies. And most recently I've been a consultant to a number of independent media outlets, most of them are now in exile. And we did a great project together, focusing on how to expand their audiences inside Belarus, especially those non-political audiences.
I think I've always been interested in journalism, in writing, but more importantly in the service, you know, in serving your country, in helping your community, in reaching out to people, in explaining things to people. Journalism is one of the forums of, how you do that.
I was actually trained, my first degree was in art history, funnily so. And I really liked art and I studied art and I was an art curator. And then in 2010, we had yet another revolution in Belarus and we had this wave of protests. It was the presidential election and I traveled back from Poland to Belarus to be there, to be on the streets. I was really young. And then I saw the important work the journalists did. Of course, there were protests, there were repression, there were arrests of people. And then I saw how journalists helped, you know, by covering the situation, by showing to the world what happened in Belarus back then. And I decided that maybe I should switch, maybe I should do more as a journalist because it's more dangerous, that's why it's more important. That was my logic.
So I decided to become a journalist. I started working at this, the only independent TV channel, Belsat TV based in Warsaw, Poland. And I got an offer from them, so that was my first experience in journalism. And then I switched, I sort of followed this path and I started doing investigations.
So my first investigation that I made - a serious one - was at Radio Free Europe and it focused on this electronic toll collection system in Belarus that was implemented by the government. And there were many questions about corruption, because that contract that, that company- that was this Austrian company - offered and finally got, was for 300 million. And there was basically no competition. Moreover, there was a politician, former Austrian vice Chancellor, who was a consultant for that Austrian company. And what was interesting, he was in Belarus during the election of 2010, and he was an observer. And I remember I interviewed him, and that gentleman told me in an interview that the election was free, democratic, and transparent. And he denied any allegations that he was involved in lobbying for Austrian company interest in Belarus, but it was clear that there was a connection. So I managed to expose him. There were also other countries involved. I wrote about Poland, about the Czech Republic and all these businesses that, that company had there. And we published that story and the Belarusian branch, BelToll, the system, the electronic collection toll system threatened me with a defamation case. And, we did not take down the story because we were right and we had proof, we had evidence of everything that I wrote.
So after all, they didn't really do anything because I think they realized that we had proof, we had evidence, but there was a lot of harassment, and I was also scared. I was also very young. But then I had this newsroom, I had my colleagues behind me who supported me, and that was really exciting, that was really interesting and I felt that was quite an achievement and something that I can do as a profession.
In 2020, I was in Belarus and I followed the start of the beginning of the revolution, basically since the spring, when we had Covid and the government abandoned people and Lukashenko even laughed at people who died of Covid. And I think we, nobody really predicted this eruption, this sort of escalation, this protest, this anger among Belarusians. And then that was something I saw and I had the chance to travel across the country before the election in August, 2020. And I saw how much this society changed. I basically rediscovered my country and I traveled to the smallest villages in towns in Belarus, and people there were telling me: "oh, we want our rights to be respected."And when you hear people saying about human rights being in this really small village, not about their salaries, not about taxes, but about human rights. It's something that, well, gives a lot of hope.
And Lukashenko, the leader of the country that was elected in 1994, in the first and last free and fair election in my country. He did not want to give away power, and he started terrorizing people, torturing them, with the help of his security forces. People were killed, shot dead on the streets. Thousands, actually, tens of thousands of people were arrested. And now we have more than 1,500 political prisoners in Belarus. We have a Nobel peace prize lawyer in jail. We have basically the whole country in jail right now. We have politicians, musicians, activists, writers, middle class, tech people, factory workers, journalists, imprisoned and this is state terror.
Now, I am less engaged. I'm less involved in investigative journalism per se, but I do some other things, right? Because of the revolution, because something else at that point, and since then basically became more important to me, I think. Something where I feel I can make more difference, and bring about change. So this is my work.
The reason now, the motivation that keeps me, forces me to keep going is that my friends are in jail. I have a really close friend, Katsiaryna Andreeva, with whom we actually did an investigation, in 2019, right before the revolution, and she was jailed in the autumn of 2020; at first for two years, then next year her sentence was prolonged; she got another eight years. So I feel that I cannot stop because she's in jail and one of my missions, one of my main goals, is to tell the world about her. I'm not saying that I have the right to be their voice, but I'm trying to help them, to help the world know about them and change their situation.
And I think another motivation is it's so painful to see how my country has been taken away. First, by Lukashenko the dictator; now, by Putin another dictator. And this is something I don't want to happen, and that's the least I can do; to spread information, to consult, to lobby, to advocate, and to constantly, constantly, I guess fight and update information about the country.
The most important tool at the moment, you know, for this work I've been doing, is I think interviews and speaking with people, explaining to them this situation. And I've also been writing a book. So interviews as you imagine are really important for that, and you want to go as deep as possible into how and what people felt, how they went through all of these experiences, and ask them as many details as possible because you want to present the situation as it happened, and so other people would feel it. Then of course you have to verify. You have to check some information. You have to fact check that. And this is where all of these investigative tools that I learned before are really helpful. So even if you left fully or just for a moment, investigative journalism, it would never leave you. Even now, even if the work I've been doing now which is not directly investigative journalism, but still.
I also focus a lot on propaganda, so this is where what I learned before has been really helpful. So, I monitor, I collect, I analyze some Russian propaganda, pro-regime propaganda and disinformation tools especially on social media. So, this is, I think, another sort of work that I've been doing.
Some things become more important when you face such challenges as we face in Belarus, right? When the country is losing sovereignty and might lose independence, and when you just cannot go back, right? Because it's dangerous for you. So, other things become more important and you do not define your work only as a profession. Or only as one small thing. You do everything to help; be it journalism, be it human rights initiatives, civil society, politics, advocacy, and so on. And you just have this mission, whatever, however you define it. And that becomes more important. That becomes the most important thing.
Objectivism here is, having less emotions but more rationalism. I was often too emotional and that undermines my expertise, my analysis, and it becomes less objective. So this is something I want to avoid. And I think there were things that perhaps I said were more radical than I expected them to be. Especially when the war started, when the full scale invasion of Ukraine began. I think we all became really emotional, so I prefer not to be that emotional because I am an analyst and I'm a journalist, so I need to be more objective in that sense.
I think that's a lot of responsibility, you know, in that, in a way, because what if what I say is wrong, actually? What if this is not a good policy? What if this is not what my country needs? So that's a lot of responsibility and you cannot make a mistake because your mistake can lead to something, not really good, not really helpful, and you have to check all the time, and you have to be really careful. You have to think twice and you have to ask other people, other analysts, you have to brainstorm what you can do; how to better address this problem. But then, yeah, but then if you publish this and this really changes something that brings a lot of satisfaction and this sense of accomplishment.
I left Belarus in 2020, after the election, and it was really painful. So I went to Kiev, Ukraine and I worked from there and one of my closest friends got arrested and the KGB, and different other security forces departments, interviewed him for eight hours and one of the questions they asked him was about me, where I'm based and what I do. So it became clear that I could not go back. And in 2021, I found out about the criminal case against me and that I was put on the wanted list. And the criminal case I know about says that I attempted to seize power in an unconstitutional way, which is punishable by up to 12 years in prison. And that's a source of major jokes, of course, because, well, how would you seize power by Twitter or by writing as a journalist? It's, I think we all laugh at that, but at the same time, being on the wanted list means that you are a target.
I might feel safe or safer because I'm in a safe country. But I know that I'm also followed here and my colleagues are also followed here. And moreover, I know that people close to me, my family, is not safe back in Belarus. So that's something that affects, I think, me and I cannot say that it affects my work because I don't self censor my work, but at the same time, there is always this second thought, maybe I should not write that, and then I have to, stop thinking this and, you know, just continue doing what I do because that's also important.
So let me tell you one funny moment. I remember when I just relocated, when I just left Belarus and I had these PTSD symptoms, which I was not aware about, because I could not imagine that something like that would happen to me. I remember I didn't have emotions. I could not cry. So like, I just didn't feel anything and that was really scary in a way. I was okay, I worked, but then I was like a machine. And then after several months, I remember, I watched this video from Minsk, and I saw the protest and I saw people being happy and then security forces arresting them, chasing them. And I felt that, oh, maybe I should cry. I felt like, oh, I need to cry. I need to feel emotions. Like, I really missed the emotions. And I remember like I just almost, almost, cried at that moment. And then some news came that something really important happened and I was like, ‘oh, okay! I don't have time for that, so I need to work’. So that was not right. Now I allow myself to have emotions, to feel emotions. I even allow myself to go on vacation. I think it is just something that I realized, that I need to take care of myself more because otherwise I was not able to support my friends, to support those people who need the work I've been doing.
But what I want to say is that we all feel frustrated. We all feel scared for different reasons. What's even more painful, what's even more frustrating is, again, my friends in jail. Most recently, one of my close friends, Ihar Losik, who is a prominent blogger. He is an RFE/RL consultant and he's like the genius of the internet. He had one of the most popular blogs in Belarus and he was arrested in 2020. And he really suffers in jail. And he was on a hunger strike for more than 40 days, and most recently he attempted suicide in jail. And that was the second time when he did that.
And often I sit and cry, asking myself, why on earth I can't be more influential? Have a stronger voice, do more change, help them. And then I'm like, ‘okay, Hannah. So when you sit and cry here, you cannot do your work. So get up and work. You don't have time for that!’ This, you know, I cannot call it motivation because these are people in jail. Like how can it be called motivation? I cannot betray them. I cannot just say that, ‘oh, I cannot do, cannot do this anymore.’
So what's really hard is that in a way you don't really live for yourself because you live for that mission that you have. But on the other hand, this is not sad because this is a really important purpose and goal in life. And then it also brings this satisfaction that you do something important and you are trying to help. Of course, you might not be successful enough, yet, but then you are trying and you just don't give up, and you are helping those people who you care about.
The Exposing the Invisible podcast series is produced by Tactical Tech.
Interview, Production and Sound Design by Mariam Aboughazi.
Tactical Tech's Exposing the Invisible team includes Laura Ranca, Lieke Ploeger, Wael Eskandar, Marek Tuszynski and Christy Lange.
Theme Music by Wael Eskandar.
Cendres by Kai Engel, Free Music Archive, licensed under a Attribution-NonCommercial License (CC BY-NC). Brand New World by Kai Engel, Free Music Archive, licensed under a Attribution License (CC BY). Interception by Kai Engel, Free Music Archive, licensed under a Attribution License (CC BY). Warm of Mechanical Heart by Kai Engel, Free Music Archive, licensed under a Attribution License (CC BY).
Illustration by Ann Kiernan
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