Novy Chas newspaper has at a certain point become a unique publication. It was still printed when printing of all other independent social and political press had stopped. All political prisoners were subscribed to Novy Chas. Editor-in-chief of the publication Aksana Kolb spoke about the persecution of the newspaper and its journalists and about their plans on working in Belarus.
Pressure started growing by the end of winter 2020. I think our runs grew (from 5 to 8.5 thousand copies) and we were receiving responses from the prisoners from everywhere — and this was the trigger.
We received a warning from the Ministry of Information first. That warning was in response to a resolution of a special commission reviewing materials which considered some of our articles a threat to the national security. It was clear that the Ministry of Information was not going to shut us down; be it so, we would have received two or three warnings on one article each, not one on one article.
Around the same time we started to receive information that, at certain detention facilities, our newspaper was only shown to the prisoners, not given out. They forced the prisoners to sign for receiving and said they would give it to them at release.
As the editor-in-chief, I received a warning from the General Prosecutor’s office in a while. We published an interview with Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya. It was almost apolitical, rather about life, from woman to women. But it was predictable, especially after what happened with the Intex-press newspaper in Baranavichy.
On 2 February, we were removed from the Belsayuzdruk kiosks, almost everywhere in the country except for Mahiliou region. The thing is, the region is not a part of the holding, it’s independent, so our paper was sold there until the end of June.
In the mid-June we received a notification from Belpost on termination of cooperation despite being included in the subscription catalogue for the second six months of the year. Many people had already subscribed and the post had to refund them. That was yet another strike.
All that led to a reasonable conclusion that we would be forbidden to print. I spoke about that with the director of the printing house. He said, «They called me already, but I said I won’t terminate until our contract expires.» Yet eventually, they stopped printing our paper with the wording «Due to the changes in technological cycle».
We didn’t apply to the state-owned printing houses. And we were rejected by the private ones with a relevant license. As to the option to print outside Belarus, we did not even consider it. It is easily stoppable and it would be a great pity to have a whole run confiscated.
You don’t need to do something illegal to be thrown in prison in Belarus today. It can happen to any one of us today, tomorrow, the day after. But it doesn’t mean we have to stop working.
Chief photographer Zmicier Dzmitryeu has been pulled from our ranks, he was sentenced to 15 days in prison (Zmicier was released on 20 August, but was infected with COVID-19 during his imprisonment. — Ed.). This is not the first time our journalists were persecuted. Zmicier Dzmitryeu and our another photo correspondent Yana Trusila had been subjected to administrative imprisonment in November 2020. Zmicier was also detained in August 2020, he served his term in Akrestsina in the worst days there. Yana Trusila was imprisoned twice; journalist Aliaksandr Ziankovich was also arrested.
Zinaida Tsimoshak spent three days in prison for laying flowers to the monument of the Sluck ghetto victims and writing about it. She was sentenced to a fine and time in prison despite her serious disease. I tried to talk to the Sluck District Directorate of Internal Affairs, but failed: they wouldn’t even listen to me.
Another two of our authors are imprisoned now and I think they wouldn’t be released under the current authorities. They are Dzianis Ivashin and Mikalai Dziadok. We really miss Ivashin; we had a series of investigations developed. He had been working on the fourth one which, according to him, was very thorough and important. He revealed a lot of things about Berkut activities in Belarus. According to his relatives, all the materials he had collected disappeared somewhere in the KGB.
I think all of this makes us stronger. None of the employees left Belarus and none is planning to. We are all working here.
Nobody wants to serve at Akrestsina, Valadarka (short for the detention facility in Valadarskaha St. in Minsk – translator’s note) or anywhere else, but if it happens, so be it. I can’t speak for the whole editorial office; maybe, facing a real threat of imprisonment someone will choose to leave Belarus. I can sure speak for myself: I will stay here no matter what.
Because they’re alive, they’re free, they tell the truth. These people will destroy everything while they’re still in power. And it is clear they wouldn’t wind back. It may slow down a bit, but the repressions won’t stop.
People want to know the truth and they will. No matter how long the authorities destroy the independent media, they won’t succeed.
We are now receiving numerous calls and letters of support, some very touching. Several days ago, one reader called after she received the newspapers. Although she’d subscribed later, I still sent her all the July issues. She said, «Oh, thank you so much, I will transfer you money for next month’s subscription.»
Then I said, «Don’t, our next issue will be the last.» And she cried. It was so touching… She said, «What am I going to do?» I suggested she studied the Internet, but she said, «I would, only we don’t have it.»
For the people who have no access to the Internet but who wants to read something other than Sovetskaya Belorussiya, it was a loss.
We cannot betray our wonderful readers. I probably know each of the several thousands because they don’t only write to us, they call, we talk. Some of them visit our office. Maybe it was the very thing that gave us strength, inspired us to work during all these months. Both our readers and volunteers who came to take our paper and deliver it across the country.
When you look at them, talk to them you see your work matters. You can’t just stop and abandon everything, exactly because of these people around.
The volunteers took Novy Chas to different regions of the county, to the districts of Minsk. About 3 to 5 thousands of issues were delivered like that weekly. For the whole time, only three people called and said they ‘didn’t need your paper’. The majority, on the contrary, called and asked how to subscribe.
Our readers help us all the time. Although we never advertised anyone on purpose and never asked for monetary help, people donated money all the time. We would daily receive 5 roubles, 10 roubles or 200.
This is yet another proof that our work matters for someone. Maybe, we would never find this out if what happened within this past year never happened. We work, we do something useful, but it is hard to evaluate how useful it is. And now we can, through huge positive feedback.
I don’t know if we should ask for people’s monetary help expressly. Everyone is having hard times now. It has always been hard for me to ask someone’s earnings for my earnings. So we won’t be doing anything like that on purpose. We only moved up our help banner on our website.
Before the warning from the Ministry of Information, all political prisoners received our paper. I can’t recall precisely, but when they were 305 all 305 were subscribed. We reviewed, reworked, added to this list monthly. Last time, when we still were in the subscription catalogue, the list comprised of more than 400.
We sent the papers even after we had been excluded from the catalogue. They all returned with a note ‘Prohibited contents’ from different prisons: Mahiliou, Hrodna and only at the end of the month from Valadarskaha. We have big piles of envelopes with papers at our office now; I gave it to some of the relatives of the political prisoners. I think we will give the papers back to the prisoners upon their release.
Our editorial office has also sent several thousands of letters to the political prisoners since December. We’ve sent subscription notices and letters with them. Around 30 to 40 letters returned. They were from the imprisoned bloggers and journalists: Ihar Losik, Daria Chultsova, Katerina Andreeva, Vitaly Tsyhanovich—and many more.
We had a Letters to Prison section. Letters from relatives were not delivered while the newspaper was. Many relatives sent us their letters and then told us the prisoners received them.
There were funny stories when the political prisoners themselves referred their relatives to us. We reached out to them, made stories about them.
And while we were being removed from the catalogue we published instructions in several issues on how to subscribe to Novy Chas. Nikolai Autukhovich (political prisoner – Ed.) sent a cut-out from the paper with the subscription instructions through his friends and asked to subscribe him.
I can’t say we’re sad and idle after the printing of the paper stopped. Each stage of pressure gave us an impetus and, I think, did us good. As soon as we were removed from the kiosks, the number of subscribers and our income grew.
No possibility to print is the reason for us to make the next step: think how to improve our website. It had been working anyway, updated daily, but we might think of something now to keep our literature section. It might be a separate page or something else. But we wouldn’t want to lose our readers. A pdf-version of the Litaraturnaya Belarus was read by 7 to 12 thousands of people monthly which is quite significant for a pdf on literature in Belarusian language.
We will also try to keep our sports section which is in demand, make it look better. Before we knew we would not be printed any more, we had planned to start a medical annex. It didn’t work out however.
We certainly will continue to focus on our stories about the families of the political prisoners. It used to be a section, now it’s a whole page, «Separated by the bars».
We might also develop our social media presence. We focus more on our website though, while it’s not blocked.
We are also thinking about creating a database of the people with no access to the Internet to make a weekly digest of the most interesting news, simply print it out on office paper and send it to them. To those who have no access to the Internet but want to read something other than propaganda.
Not under these authorities, but we will return. Maybe, it would be a political magazine, which is needed in Belarus I think. Maybe, something else.
We don’t plan to stop. Even if we will be closed, it may be through the founder of the Belarusian Language Society: it will be closed and we will lose our registration. But it doesn’t mean we will stop working. This might be the reason for a part of our employees to move abroad and continue working from there.
Several weeks ago, a TV broke down in our cell. So the only thing that reminds us we are in the 21st century are the LED lights on the ceiling 🙂 The time that we spare after playing chess, reading books, newspapers, magazines we spend generating antibodies to the «corona disease».
We thank you again for your work. We do expect every issue. We wish Novy Chas big runs and, importantly, more information reasons for good news!
Residents of cell No. 86, SIZO No. 1 (detention facility in Valadarskaha St.), 11.04.2021’
Aliaksandr Kabanau, 17.02.2021:
‘Thank you very much for the subscription! The last two or three months were terrible in terms of the information, news. There was nothing but the radio. And you know, it’s all about people’s gathering and success of the authorities, «approved» and «wipe out» as the brightest recollections of the «people’s gathering».
Two issues of Novy Chas were delivered with a letter from Valadarka. I consumed them within an hour, cover to cover.’
Katerina Andreeva (Bahvalova), 25.03.2021:
‘I sincerely thank you for your work and for the subscription to the best paper publication in Belarus. Novy Chas is my favorite and often the only source of information. This word is not the best, because reading your paper is like drinking from a clear spring. I have no words to describe the emotions we had when we saw letters and wishes from our relatives on the pages of Novy Chas! Every Friday is a holiday with a special ritual—a new newspaper with a cup of coffee.’
Letters from readers
‘Hello, dear editorial office of Novy Chas newspaper!
My deepest gratitude to you, your dignity, cleverness, humanity. It is so good to have you at this difficult time. You help to live on; you do work which pleases God (original spelling preserved). You have His blessing so I’m sending you these prayers.’
‘Hello, dear editorial office of Novy Chas newspaper!
My sister and I thank you for the newspapers (she buys them and I have a subscription), for with it we know a little about what’s happening in our country and abroad.’
‘An ancient retired (I’m 83) is writing to you. A lover of the printed word, I’ve subscribed to newspapers for many years… By recommendation of my friendly colleague I immediately subscribed to your publication and was very pleased… Now (clearly) the overstaying ruler got to you, too.’
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