Phantasy journalism (Shaun Walker on Belarus)

Belarus demonstrations

The problem with Guardian and Independent journalists writing on Russia – or the post-Soviet space is that 90% of what you get is produced by their lens and 10% by what is actually happening. In the lens is encoded a simple script: liberal capitalist ‘democracies’ good / planned economies bad / moral conservatism bad / Putin bad / Kremlin lies / Navalny is the Messiah. Something like that.

Take this nasty piece from the Guardian’s Moscow correspondent Shaun Walker – who  seems to have managed to hop on a plane to Minsk so he can write real-time reports from the heart of the uprising. The problem is he took his lens with him.


The protests that followed had been ruthlessly suppressed, and on the evening I showed up, riot police in balaclavas were pulling people out of their cars at random and beating them up.

A nice dramatic start. I bet it wasn’t at random.

My first day in Minsk was also challenging because the authorities had completely shut down internet access across the country. Using a medley of VPNs, I could just about check my email on my apartment wifi, but nothing else, and mobile internet did not work at all.

Obviously they hadn’t completely shut down the Internet since you could check your email with a VPN. Either you can check your email or you can’t. “Just about” is added for dramatic effect.

 it was only we on the ground who had no idea what was happening outside.

But you’ve just told us you could access the Internet with a VPN. Lots of people have VPNs and will have shared information. I know you want to get a good story going Shaun but this is in the creative fiction class.

 Vans with darkened windows and no plates could often be seen lurking on street corners, men in balaclavas sitting in the front seats; I’ll never look at a Ford Transit in the same way again.

The British police can look just as menacing when they want to. But in the Guardian we will only ever see the police forces of unfavoured regimes described like this. But keep going on the creative fiction Shaun.

Heavy-set plain-clothed observers, known locally as tikhari (something like “creepers”), were ubiquitous. At protests, they walked by, ostentatiously filming everyone in attendance on camcorders.

Standard police tactic also used by UK police.

It’s not only the “creative class” of young professionals who are protesting. It’s all kinds of people who just a few years ago might have been pro-Lukashenko: factory workers, rural grandmothers and even some state employees.

Walker is not stupid. He knows the problem is that this ‘revolution’ will be weighted towards young middle-class professionals. He has to get this line in. I’m not there but my guess would be that there are not really that many “rural grandmothers” protesting.

His [Lukashenko] PR team has wheeled out the same tropes the Kremlin used successfully in Ukraine six years ago, about neo-Nazi radicals trying to bring chaos and sow discord with Russia.

The eagerness with which liberals like Shaun Walker are prepared to whitewash the worst aspects of Ukrainian fascism in their pursuit of the liberal takeover is sickening. The role played by fascists in Maidan – the fact that the immediate post-Maidan government contained several far-fight figures, the evidence that some of the battalions fighting the Russian-speakers in the East were inspired by Nazi imagery is not a Kremlin “trope”.  Even liberal Channel 4 admitted it [1] and the US Congress had to block funding to one fascist paramilitary group [2]. That this is a Kremlin “trope” is sickening, vile. Russia lost 23 million people to the Nazis in WWII – half of them civilians. Of course they are concerned about people using Nazi symbols on their doorstep.

In Ukraine, there was a kernel of truth to expand and distort, as well as a divided country to play with, but in Belarus it just sounds ridiculous

That’s odd. A moment ago the “kernel of truth” about fascists in Ukraine was described as a “trope”. Which is it Mr Walker?

As for “divided country to play with”. And the EU and the US were not “playing with a divided country” in Ukraine when, for example, they sent their diplomats to egg on one side in this division and encourage the toppling of an elected President?

I left the country inspired by the power, dignity and resolve of the protesters,..

Yes. I am sure you did and that many of them have these qualities. But I am also sure that that they represent only one part of the population and I note that your article hardly admits the existence of anyone else. It looks to me like the usual case of extreme confirmation bias. You came to see dignified protesters, you saw them, and you left. In fact the narratives are being improved. Conscious as you are that even some Western readers might wonder if there aren’t some people in Belarus who are not protesting you do admit their existence – but you dismiss them as apathetic. So, in fact, a three-part model: sinister dictator and thugs – dignified protestors – an apathetic rump who are only not protesting because they don’t get it. That takes care of those who voted for Lukashenko quite nicely. From a journalistic point of view, however, it would have been much, much, more interesting if you’d balanced the story with some interviews with people who are not aligned with the protestors rather than dismissing them as apathetic.


[Image: Alex Zelenko / CC BY-SA ( /]

Author: justinwyllie

EFL Teacher and Photographer