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Is it worth for foreign journalists to work under the radar in Belarus?

08.10.2013 Ilya Kuzniatsou 2819

To put it short – no.  I have spent 15 days including Christmas in jail for not having the press accreditation when working for German TV, so I can tell you for sure - not worth it.

Yes, there have been cases when full-length documentaries were shot in Minsk for several months without any permissions or accreditations. Yes, there is an offshore TV www.belsat.eu, which has many kamikaze crews illegally doing daily news stories from all over the country, but their people are local and know their ways.

Still, they often get arrested and their gear gets confiscated.  

Foreign press journalists can sometimes get away with doing a story on Belarus, but forget about getting your camera out in the centre of Minsk – police will usually approach you within minutes and ask for a local press ID. Belarus proudly comes second in the world by the number of police per capita, plus a huge KGB, and sometimes it feels they are all in the centre of Minsk, so there is little chance of doing something unnoticed in this country.

Given Belarus’ image in the West, many journalists are worried about being spied on, so sometimes even major media organizations send their journalists to Belarus as tourists. As a result, you can imagine the quality of stories. Don’t worry, I know it’s bad, but it’s not so bad; there is a way to get a press accreditation and work in this country legally.

The way to go is to apply for a press accreditation to the Foreign Ministry here. The press accreditation nicely comes in a package with a letter of invitation (they call it Visa support) to an embassy of your choice, so you can pick it up in any country at your convenience. Better apply in advance, they say on their website they can consider your application for up to 2 months, but in practice you should allow at least 10 days, better 2 weeks before your planned trip. And don’t worry about being spied on – “relevant agencies” check on you when you apply for your Visa, not when you apply for the press accreditation.

In my experience, journalists usually do get visas to Belarus when they apply, so unless you are doing something completely illegal or undercover, where “flying under the radar” is absolutely crucial, I would suggest that you get a press ID.