Growing up in a provincial Belarusian town, Ruslan Harbachou was inspired to become a reporter after encountering a fearless-journalist character in the work of Roman Sobolenko, a Soviet-era Belarusian writer who was repeatedly arrested.
“Journalism is really my dream,” he says. “I love being in the center of events, writing about problems. Sometimes it helps other people.”
Harbachou, who works for the Salidarnasts online newspaper, has spent 12 years in the polarized and under-resourced world of Belarusian journalism. Under the country’s strongman president, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, state-owned media function as mouthpieces for the government, while the independent organizations struggle to stay afloat and to focus on the problems of ordinary Belarusians, he says.
In this cash-strapped environment, reporters learn to do everything: in addition to covering social issues, politics, sports, and culture at a previous newspaper, Harbachou started reporting on economics and writing a column. A new father, he has recently taken a second job.
But the trials of a Belarusian journalist go beyond a tiny paycheck and a huge workload. Officials there routinely ignore requests for information or freeze independent journalists out of government events. And even though the country has a law protecting reporters in the course of their work, it is often flouted. While reporting on protests surrounding Belarus’ falsified 2010 presidential elections, Harbachou was beaten by men he believes were plainclothes police officers. Hundreds of protesters were sent to jail, and many were injured. No one was ever prosecuted for the abuses.
Harbachou is a perennial winner of the Volnaye Slova (Free Word) award, given out by the independent Belarusian Association of Journalists. In 2013 he was one of three winners of the Reporters for Reporters Eastern Partnership Journalism Prize from the Polish Reporters Foundation and the Foundation for Polish-German cooperation.
His investigations have included articles on Minsk city officials forcing businesses to buy trash bins at 10 times their usual price tag, without explanation; the academic plagiarism of a cabinet member’s son; and wasteful spending on new “palaces” for ice hockey, a game beloved by Lukashenka.
Harbachou believes that journalism can change Belarus, which civil liberties watchdog Freedom House consistently deems “not free” in its annual global survey. Thanks to people like him, he says, “More and more people are beginning to understand that there are a lot of problems and shortcomings that should be corrected in our country.”