By Peggy Simpson
By 1996 Iryna Khalip’s hope for a free media in a free Belarus had been dashed, and she faced growing harassment by state security. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko had shut down most independent newspapers, including several where Khalip had worked. He had dissolved the parliament elected in 1990 after Belarus declared its independence and replaced the democratically elected parliamentarians with handpicked delegates. With the situation worsening, Iryna’s father, also a journalist, urged her to consider leaving the profession, as so many others were doing.
But Khalip, an International Women’s Media Foundation 2009 Courage in Journalism Award winner, had tasted what a free media and a free Belarus could be like.
“[Belarus] could become a small European country with a democratic structure. It had great promise, a great future ahead of it,” she said. “I liked the idea of living in that kind of country. I wanted to live through all these changes, of building a democratic society, of improving relations with foreign countries, including the United States.”
Khalip finished journalism studies at Belarus State University in 1989, a time of enormous change. “Perestroika started in the Soviet Union. And it turned out journalists could do so much more than they could in the past.…And when I saw those lines of people lining up to buy newspapers, I saw this was something that was needed.”
Her father, Vladimir Khalip, an arts and theater critic who now works for the satellite TV channel Belsat, was her mentor. He taught her to ignore professors still tied to Soviet ideology and told her how to make stories come alive with good writing.
Iryna Khalip covered the yeasty days of democracy in Belarus for a government paper, Soviet Belarusia. In 1994, the employees put forth a proposal to privatize the paper “so they would be the actual shareholders.”
Lukashenko had been elected president three months earlier, and he didn’t take kindly to the buyout idea.He sent someone to tell reporters and editors that from that time on, they would be his mouthpiece. The next day, he fired the editor.
“At that point, I understood very clearly that I no longer wanted to write about the arts but about the newly elected administration, to point out to the new authorities that what they were doing was contrary to the principles under which the country had been operating. They needed to be told that,” Khalip said.
Lukashenko not only did not listen, he escalated hostilities against the media and democracy groups. In 1997, state security police clubbed and dragged Khalip by her hair as she covered a rally protesting Lukashenko’s moves to link Belarus closer to Russia and end its status as an independent country. Her father, covering the rally for a documentary film studio, was beaten unconscious.
That was a turning point for Iryna. She was deputy editor-in-chief of the newspaper Imya, one of three papers she worked for that ultimately were shuttered by the government.
Before 1997, Khalip said she reported events with objectivity. But after her beating in 1997, “I understood I could no longer not take sides. It became a personal matter to me,” she said.
Since 2003, Khalip has been the Belarusian correspondent for the privately owned Russian newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, which is banned in Belarus. Novaya Gazeta is the newspaper of many intrepid Russian journalists, including 2002 Courage Award winner Anna Politkovskaya, who was murdered for her work in 2006.
That year, Khalip joined the newspaper after an investigative report she wrote about a Minsk prison chief who had supplied the gun that top officials used in killing off opposition leaders caught the attention of the paper’s editors. Khalip doesn’t regret her decision and says her bosses “never tell me what to write.”
For the last five years, she also has helped publish an underground publication distributed in Belarus that covers the opposition dissidents and gives people confirmation that there are indeed dissidents, even if the official press denies it.
When officials catch up with the latest issue of the underground newspaper, Khalip usually gets a subpoena. They question her about her controversial articles for above-ground publications as well as the underground paper. She is often confronted with her notes: “Yes, these are my notes, this is my name. But I have no idea how that got from my computer into the newspaper,” she tells the police.
Asked to define courage, Khalip said, “I believe that courage is sort of a state of mind: When a person does fear but continues to do whatever he or she is doing because the motivation is stronger.
“About 10 years ago, I think I did some courageous things. I did feel the fear,” she said. “But today it’s a matter of habit, to live in conditions of underground struggle, especially when I bear in mind that my husband, Andrei Sannikov, is an opposition leader.” This means that the two face double scrutiny from the government.
She wants to let reporters in democratic societies know that “a journalist who lives under a totalitarian regime cannot be objective. Objectivity is a privilege of a democratic society. Once you have been beaten, you become an activist, you become a fighter.”
She now takes steps to protect herself. “I follow the principle of glasnost – of security,” she said. After her office was ransacked and her computer and notes were confiscated, “I found myself completely helpless.”
Now, she says, “I try not to keep at home any kind of notes on my voice recorder. …I also work very quickly: I find out information and I publish it.”
Anna Politkovskaya’s murder made her rethink how she looked at death threats.
“I had thought that if they made threats, they’d never kill that person. They usually kill without warning. But there were threats against Anna, and she died. So obviously my logic was wrong,” Khalip said.
Now, she says, “if there is a threat against your life, you need first and foremost to call all your friends and tell them...Before Anna’s death, I didn’t take it very seriously. Now that this has happened, I realize they may really kill you.”
Peggy Simpson is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.