Why did belarusian authorities send a sports journalist to prison

Why did belarusian authorities send a sports journalist to prison

The story of Aliaksandr Ivulin

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On January 19, 2022 Aliaksandr Ivulin, a well known Belarusian sports journalist, YouTube blogger and a player for Krumkachy football team, was sentenced to two years in prison. He was pronounced guilty of ‘organisation and active participation in group actions in gross violation of public order’. In addition, Minsktrans [Minsk Directorate for Transport] demands that the journalist covered damages of 39 thousand Belarusian Roubles (about 15 thousand US Dollars) caused by alleged transport downtime during Sunday rallies in Minsk in 2020.

Aliaksandr has been imprisoned since June 2021 when ‘unknown in civilian clothes’ came to his home. Human rights defenders have recognized the journalist as a political prisoner.

On November 4, 2022 the Ministry of Internal Affairs added the journalist to the list of persons involved in extremist activities.

‘Despite everything that is happening I still believe in the supremacy of law, I still believe in the norms of human ethics and I still believe in people,’ said Aliaksandr Ivulin in his final words in court.

What’s important to know about Sasha [short for Aliaksandr — translator’s note] is told by his friends and colleagues.

[UPD] On February 17, 2023, Ivulin was released. The journalist spent 1 year, 8 months and 14 days in prison. He served his sentence in full.

He became irreplaceable very soon

Maksim Berezinsky
Maksim BerezinskyTribuna.com project leader

Sasha came to work for us to try himself out; he brought several topics with him, his ringing voice which distinguishes him. It was hard for him at first because his level was far lower than our standards. But I have to admit Sasha is a man able to work. He took the situation as a challenge: he made it with his sense of purpose, speed, promptness and willingness to work a lot.

For example, Champions League games in Barusau ended quite late and Sasha always volunteered to go there, he wrote right on site, just in time. So we could have a text ready by three in the morning. It was normal for him.

Sasha is kind hearted, always ready to help, that’s what everybody says. Sometimes we asked him to add some trick questions to his interviews, but it’s not his forte: he feels comfortable speaking about positive things. Harsh interviews are not about him.

He progressed in every aspect including texts. Besides, Sasha made contacts with football players, he always had insights, topics to work on. Eventually, he became irreplaceable for the editorial office very soon.

Aliaksandr Ivulin

ChestnOK and professional football

What shows Sasha’s attitude to work in the best way possible is that he started the ChestnOK YouTube channel at his own initiative. He promoted it for a year or so in his own spare time: he found people, camera men, microphones, cameras, filmed something — did everything at his own risk.

When Sasha started his channel, there was nobody in Belarusian YouTube. Not only in sports, in general. The segment was dead. But Sasha never gave up if a video had little views, he tried out different formats, moved on. So his caring, empathy — which are very important for a showman — attracted the audience. Views grew significantly, the whole football community followed what Sasha was doing.

So in terms of self-devotion, purpose and aspiration, ChestnOK is a very representative project. We helped with equipment and some other things, but ideas and their realisation were Sasha’s completely.

It’s a pity we couldn’t complete the ‘Will Sasha appear?’ project, which is a reality series about Belarusian football. Sasha signed a professional contract with the Krumkachy club and was to debut as a football player in the First league. He trained a lot, lost 10 kg; he was in pretty good shape and could appear on the team in the several upcoming tours.

This proves that Sasha, not the youngest person for football, could adjust to daily training, running. It requires overcoming oneself. Ivulin managed. We even used to joke that he became a bit of a football player. He could say, ‘No, I can’t right now. I have a training session and then a nap.’

Ivulin’s case is one of the elements of fighting bloggers. By the time Ivulin was detained, YouTube was cleared. Sasha remained the only one broadcasting from Belarus and was one of the major bloggers. This was the very reason he got detained.

Sasha made the right choice and it calls for great respect

Sasha has already written more than five hundred letters. He is quite upbeat and is trying to respond to every letter. It is surprising that he doesn’t despair and even manages to support people from inside. This positivity is his standard perception of life he expresses in all his letters.

He writes everything will be fine, things will happen as they should and it makes people smile and feel good. His mood helps to live on in our crazy world.

At the same time, Sasha knows where he got to and why he is there. He doesn’t feel a heavy burden because he hadn’t done anything wrong. So he tunes himself for positivity, sees it as an adventure he has to complete. Even the lawyer, who has several active cases, is astonished by Sasha’s positivity, especially next to other stories. This approach allows not to be cornered. Sasha uses it.

Aliaksandr Ivulin

Should we meet, I would just shake his hand and give him a bear hug. No words are needed. We worked out different situations at the editorial office. Sasha had the least doubts. Even with all emotions and stress he managed to see all the events clearly, as well as everything that happened to him after the detainment. He is truly unbreakable.

He follows his way and he is certain he did nothing wrong. Sasha made the right choice and it calls for great respect and admiration.

Sasha thinks about work a lot, even behind bars

Aleh Harunovich
Aleh Harunovicheditor-in-Chief of Tribuna Digital

Mikita Melkaziorau, who used to work at Gosls.by and Tribuna, found Sasha for our project. Mikita and Sasha met at the Faculty of Journalism where both studied. They also both played for the faculty team.

Sasha was part of our team for more than seven years and he has grown a lot in this time: from the person who could hardly write without mistakes and word his thoughts to a great reporter and then, even despite his unusual voice, to a successful sports video blogger.

Able to work, mobile, appealing—that’s, in a nutshell, what Sasha is as a journalist and a professional.

Noteworthy, the progress he made is the result of his work on himself. This man is incredibly hard-working and devoted to what he does. Even now when he’s behind bars, Sasha thinks about work a lot, he says he misses working, he has certain ideas he wants to realise.

Aliaksandr Ivulin

Sasha is only liable for being human

It is obvious for me that his case didn’t come out of nowhere. It was an ‘accident’ that at least a lieutenant colonel was waiting for him in the street, then they hanged a flag at his balcony which the witnesses never saw. Some facts in this relation will appear when those who detained Ivulin will be on trial. Then they would probably tell who thought of what.

Sasha was detained after a live stream when he raised money for his Krumkachy partner’s brother who is a political prisoner, too. I think Sasha is only liable for being human.

Letters from Sasha are regular; he has already written more than seven hundred of them. His correspondence has one important feature: it is very optimistic. Ivulin surprises everyone with this. It is rare that a person who got imprisoned for the first time shows such toughness. And Sasha is not just holding on himself, he manages to support others.

Plus, even at the pre-trial detention centre Sasha shows certain features of his nature. Mobility and ability to work, for instance. He responds to everyone who writes a letter to him, sometimes even in Belarusian, although he never spoke Belarusian before detainment, at least with me. He is also learning to draw; I know he plays chess well and he is reading a lot.

Sasha lives on what he does

Yaroslav Pisarenko
Yaroslav Pisarenkofriend and colleague currently running the ChestnOK YouTube channel

Sasha is… he is a friend, a fellow to me. He is appealing. It is great to talk to him, he is sensitive, a good listener.

We met quite a long time ago, we are from the same town, Orša. We played in KVN, but on different teams. Then we started communicating and it turned out we had the same goal, to study at the Faculty of Journalism. He was enrolled earlier, for he is older than me. Then the number of our common hobbies grew — sports, etc. That’s how we became friends.

Sasha’s bulletproof, confident and charismatic. That’s a pretty cool mix. Even though he naturally doesn’t have a good voice and classic visual appearance of a showman, he managed to make it his strength thanks to his perseverance and huge appeal.

What speaks loudly about how professional Sasha is is his self-improvement. It has always been obvious that he lives on what he does. It is more of a way of life for him than work. Whatever lacked at the beginning, he took it on the way.

There is a story about Sasha. His accreditation to all BATE events was withdrawn; it was while Anatoly Kapsky was still alive. So in order to get to the meeting with fans organised by the club at the end of the season, Sasha decided to change his appearance, turn into a ‘BATE fan’— he made himself up, found appropriate clothes, put on a mustache, a wig and glasses. And eventually he got to the meeting and prepared an article.

This is very characteristic of him. He is into any activity and is ready for almost anything for the content including such mindblowing, non-standard journalistic moves.

Sasha is ChestnOK’s heart

I helped Sasha with the ChestnOK channel, but worked mostly with editing and appearance. Clearly, Sasha is the heart of the channel. I never planned to host ChestnOK and never thought long distance. I just wanted to make an episode about Sasha, about what was happening.

But I made one and things started rolling. I saw it was important, it was needed. First, I wanted and I still want to support Sasha this way. Certainly, ChestnOK is not his lifetime project, but it is important for him. I don’t want the channel to disappear. Second, it’s about people, a great number of subscribers who want to be informed, who watch every episode. So I see a mission here, too.

He is an optimist, undoubtedly

Sasha speaks the truth, he always has. But in today’s Belarus, officials see it not the way we would like them to. And Sasha is loved by the people, so they want to ‘shut’ him.

We write to each other. It’s been a bit slower lately, but the letters still reach. Our correspondence is not about work: I give him some news, so does he. We don’t discuss the channel in our letters. I think those who are inside need rather simple communication, talk than words of support.

Sasha is upbeat, maybe even more than me. Of us two, he is the optimist and I’m rather a pessimist or a realist. Sasha is always charged: everything’s cool, everything’s great. And speaking about the words of support, I get more from him now than he does from me.

Should I meet Sasha now — I would probably be silent for a long time, listening. I would struggle to ask one single question, for I have lots of them. I would very likely not ask anything and just listen to him speaking about his last six months. And then I would say all my words and pay respects.

And then Ivulin came and — boom!

Aramais Mirakyan
Aramais Mirakyanjournalist

We studied at the Faculty of Journalism, yet Aliaksandr is older than me. The first thing I remember about him is that our teachers have always referred to him as an example. He was Aliaksandr Gradziushka’s favourite student so the latter began each class with the words, ‘You know, there is Sasha Ivulin two years senior, he does so well, he studies and works.’

Everyone — not only teachers, but students as well — loved him. He is a positive, good man. One can always approach him to ask anything. He started working since year one and by the time he graduated he was already quite a known journalist. And many people asked him, ‘How to get to work at Tribuna?’ People asked for advice and Sasha never refused anyone.

We received our diplomas — I got bachelor degree and he master — the same day. We followed one another, my parents were with me. I said to them, ‘This is Sasha Ivulin. He is one the best known sports journalists in Belarus.’ We took a photo and it’s almost the only photo of us together. Those are warm memories.

He is friendly, hard working, honest. I think his projects succeeded, first and foremost, because of his pathological honesty. He has always done what makes him ‘high’ and he’s done it from the bottom of his heart. It is obvious and it appeals.

Aliaksandr Ivulin and Aramais Mirakyan

His name is a brand to a certain degree

It always amazed me how he managed to make an interview with athletes who hadn’t spoken to anyone in years. And then Ivulin came and—boom! The interview is done and it’s awesome. He is a good interviewer digging deep into the topic. I have always read Sasha’s pieces with pleasure. His name is a brand to a certain degree: if it says Ivulin is the author, it’s worth reading.

It was so cool when he started his reality series ‘Will Sasha appear?’ and play for the Krumkachy. And it is so sad he never appeared on the field, he was detained. He literally worked very hard and it was obvious they would let him out on the field. I believe he will go on after release, he won’t stop.

It’s worth preserving a human inside yourself

It seems to me the authorities got frightened by Ivulin’s media appearance. He made a documentary about Mikita Kryutsou, a football fan from Maladzečna who died in August 2020. I think they might have not forgiven him for that. And ‘the time came’.

The things he writes in his letters are very appealing to me, he repeats it’s worth preserving a human inside yourself. It refers to the previous experience of political prisoners in Soviet times. Everything is repeated. It’s painful that the best of people are forced to go through all of this.

I’m proud to know him, to have studied with him. Should I meet him now, I would say the same thing I would say to any other political prisoner, ‘You make us proud, you make us conscious.’

He asked to tell everyone not to tell he doesn’t read books

Tatsiana Ashurkevich
Tatsiana Ashurkevichjournalist

I was never interested in sports, but when ChestnOK appeared I watched a lot of episodes. I like the format, sharp attitude. I was surprised: there is something capable of drawing me to sports and making the topic interesting for me.

Sasha and I knew each other, but not very closely. Just knew each other and sometimes joked about something or discussed professional issues. At some point we scheduled to discuss some interviews but got both busy and rescheduled. And just the day before the new date, Sasha was detained. That’s it.

I wrote to him for the first time in August 2021 because a rumor appeared he wasn’t reading anything. I thought I could discuss books with him and send him some extracts to educate. So I wrote to him, ‘Hi, Sasha. I am finally writing to you. How are you doing? I’ll educate you.’ I wrote about my favourite popular scientific books and received a response letter. In that letter, he responded in a friendly manner yet with a bit of anger and gave a list of books he had already read which occupied half of the whole letter. And he asked me to tell everyone not to tell girls — he has a lot of female pen mates — that he is not reading.

I write to many political prisoners, but Sasha is probably the only person whose letters do not resemble letters from the person imprisoned for a long time. He always adds smiles, jokes in almost every sentence. He asks about you a lot, about your feelings and emotions. These are very positive letters.

We discussed Oximiron’s new album. I decided to send him lyrics from that album. And he responded, ‘I’m sorry I can’t recall any beat, but I’ll try.’ He jokes and holds on to such things. It is definitely the first person inside who supports people on the outside.

I know from our mutual acquaintances that Sasha is a very joyful person, he is always smiling. And I found proof of that in our letters. He is very honest, he’s not afraid to tell anything personal.

I think it would be interesting for him to hear about a person he knows. He is actually interested in everything now, especially things happening in the cultural sphere. Those can be things helping him to stay in reality. It is important to him as a professional.


Photos: speakers’ personal archive, Aliaksandr Ivulin’s pages on Facebook and Instagram

23 студзеня 2022 года

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Repressions against journalists in Belarus 2020–2022

Beatings, injuries, detentions. Searches, arrests, court hearings, prisons. Website blocks, refusal to print and distribute, revocation of credentials…

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