The battle for the narrative at the border of Poland and Belarus

In early September, the right-wing president of Poland declared a state of emergency at his country’s Eastern border with Belarus—the first such order in Poland’s post-communist history. Officials said that the declaration, which would last for thirty days, was a response to migrants from the Middle East and Afghanistan attempting to cross into Poland, and thus the European Union; it also had the effect of restricting activists and monitors, not least journalists, from getting within two miles of the border, and explicitly aimed to “limit access to public information on activities” within that sealed zone. Photographing border guards, police, and military officers was also banned. Access was hardly unimpeded before the declaration—journalists resorted to photographing migrants from afar; activists reported using a megaphone to talk to them—and numerous Polish lawmakers and international observers characterized the state of emergency as a government pretext to further limit scrutiny of its treatment of asylum seekers. In response to the decree, Reporters Without Borders declared a “press freedom state of emergency” in Poland. The former has since been extended by two months, and so the latter continues, too.

The first charges for violating the state of emergency came the day after it was implemented, with police summoning Bartłomiej Bublewicz, a reporter for Onet, as well as a camera operator for the same site to accuse them of breaking the rules. Staying outside of the zone covered by the declaration hasn’t proved much of a protection for the press, either. In late September, border guards pulled over and interrogated Agnieszka Kaszuba, of the Polish newspaper Fakt, even though she had been driving outside of the zone; in the end, she was fined for not having a fire extinguisher in her car. In recent days, we’ve seen an escalation. On November 14, Claudia Ciobanu and Jaap Arriens, of the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, were pulled over and accused both of driving within the zone (they weren’t) and of having stolen their cellphones (they hadn’t); the next day, the authorities detained and fined David Khalifa and Jordi Demory, who were on assignment for the French edition of the Russian state broadcaster RT. The day after that, Maciej Moskwa, Maciej Nabrdalik, and Martin Divisek, three photojournalists, stopped by a military camp and took pictures; they identified themselves as press, but when they tried to leave, they were forced out of their car and handcuffed so tightly their wrists bruised while officers tried to search their cameras and phones. (In a recording made by one of the journalists, a soldier can be heard telling a colleague that the journalists would have a right to file a complaint since, “unfortunately, we’re not in the zone of this fucking state of emergency.”)

ICYMI: The not-so-invisible primary for 2024

Poland’s prime minister said recently that allowing journalists to access the border would be unhelpful since it would expose them to “the influence of Belarusian and Russian fake news.” Around the same time, a deputy foreign minister said that reporters are being kept away from the border to protect them from migrants, adding that if the press really wants to see what’s going on, “nothing is stopping you and other journalists from going to Belarus and reporting from there.” Belarus, of course, is one of the worst countries in the world for journalists, where the dictator Alexander Lukashenko responded to widespread protests against his rule last year with a particularly brutal clampdown on independent media. (The clampdown hasn’t abated: just yesterday, Nasha Niva, the oldest newspaper in Belarus, was outlawed.) Indeed, Lukashenko’s war on the press was partly the impetus for the border crisis: in May, he grounded a commercial flight in order to abduct the journalist Roman Protasevich; the EU responded by tightening sanctions on Lukashenko, who, in turn, has not only allowed but encouraged migrants to assemble at the EU’s border with the country, including by liberalizing access to “tourist visas” from Middle Eastern countries.

Lukashenko’s regime has recently allowed international media outlets, which are increasingly treating the crisis as a big story, to access the Belarusian side of the border: CNN, for example, filed a report from inside a migrant-processing center, while the BBC’s Steve Rosenberg filmed right next to the wire border fence. (Rosenberg was also granted a televised interview with Lukashenko himself, and took the chance to grill him on his human-rights record.) Still, the terms of such access have seemed somewhat convenient: as NPR’s Charles Maynes put it, Belarus allowing reporters to observe the processing center and Polish border officials firing weapons at migrants “seemed like a media event designed to present Belarus as much more humane than the EU.” There is, as the BBC’s Nick Beake and others have reported, a narrative battle underway at the border, with Belarusian and Polish authorities using social and traditional media to push their respective lines. According to Beake, Belarusian troops recently filmed themselves playing with migrant kids to show compassion, while Polish troops filmed the Belarusian troops to show them cynically using kids for a photo op. Russia, an ally of Belarus, has joined the narrative war, too.

Social media has helped reporters communicate with, and hear the stories of, migrants who they can’t always access in person. It has also been an engine of disinformation targeting migrants themselves: as the New York Times reported this week, would-be people smugglers and other malefactors have used Facebook, in particular, to advertise non-existent ways to cross the border, often at a steep price. (This disinformation has helped Lukashenko stoke the border crisis, the Times notes, though there’s no evidence that his regime has played an active role in coordinating it.) Ultimately, in the absence of reliable journalistic access, particularly within the sealed zone in Poland, news organizations have found it hard to verify what’s actually happening at the border. The stakes for finding out are high: This isn’t just a geopolitical showdown between Eastern and Western Europe; it’s increasingly a humanitarian emergency, too. Families have been separated. Temperatures in the border area have plummeted to dangerous lows. A dozen migrants are thought to have died, including a one-year-old child.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

According to Notes from Poland, an English-language news site that covers the country, the Polish constitution dictates that the state of emergency at the border, which is due to expire next week, cannot be extended further. Government officials have been working on replacement measures; the interior minister has said that these will restore media access to the border, though journalists there will have to abide by tight rules and coordinate closely with border guards. Whatever happens next, it seems unrealistic to expect the Polish authorities—or those in Belarus, for that matter—to willingly relinquish narrative control. Until now, that’s been so extensive that even local residents haven’t been able to fully see what’s happening right under their noses. “Two hundred people broke into the country three kilometers from our village and we have no idea what’s going on,” Tom Diserens, a scientist who lives close to the border, told Notes from Poland two weeks ago. “We need journalists on the border.”

Below, more on press freedom around the world:

  • Belarus: NRT, a broadcaster based in Iraqi Kurdistan, has claimed that one of its reporters, Zhyan Ali, was arrested at the airport in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, as she tried to enter the country on Monday, and that her equipment was confiscated. Ali was attempting to travel to the Polish border, where many Kurds are among the migrants trying to cross into the EU. NRT has been covering the crisis remotely.
  • Somalia: On Saturday, Abdiaziz Mohamud Guled—the director of a government-owned radio station in Somalia who was a prominent critic of al-Shabab, an Islamist militant group, and was known for his interviews with suspected members of the group—was killed in a suicide bombing in Mogadishu, the capital. Al-Shabab claimed responsibility for the attack, and said that it had long been “hunting” Guled for “crimes against Islam.”
  • Argentina: On Monday night, a gang of nine people, who wore hoods to conceal their identities, lobbed molotov cocktails at the offices of Clarín, a major newspaper based in Buenos Aires. No one was injured, but the paper’s owners described the incident as “worrying,” and said that it appeared to constitute “a violent expression of intolerance against a communications media outlet.” The Buenos Aires Times has more.
  • India: For Coda Story, Aakash Hassan reports that publications in Kashmir, where the Indian authorities have clamped down on press freedom since removing the region’s autonomous status in 2019, are increasingly erasing old articles critical of the Indian government. The work of local reporters in Kashmir “forms a vital record of wide-ranging human rights violations linked to the Indian armed forces,” Hassan writes, “one that many believe the government is attempting to expunge.”
  • China: Recently, Peng Shuai disappeared from public view in the country after accusing a former government official of sexual assault, sparking an international outcry. (She since appeared at a tournament in Beijing and has reportedly been in contact with international Olympic officials.) The Chinese government has scrubbed references to Peng from the country’s media, including by blocking international networks’ coverage of her. Yesterday, CNN showed its viewers in the US what that censorship looks like.
  • Canada: On Monday, a court in Canada released the journalists Amber Bracken and Michael Toledano from detention, three days after arresting them while they covered a protest against a pipeline on Indigenous land—though contempt charges against the pair have not yet been dropped. Their arrests “followed two recent court decisions that upheld the rights of journalists to work unimpeded at protests,” the Times notes.


Other notable stories:

  • Allies of President Biden told Michael M. Grynbaum, of the Times, that he should be talking to the media more. Nine months into his tenure, Biden has done roughly a dozen one-on-ones with major print and TV outlets—compared with Trump’s more than fifty and Obama’s more than a hundred by the same point—and hasn’t sat for any interview with the the Times, the Post, the Journal, USA Today, Reuters, or the AP, Grynbaum reports. Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, countered that Biden takes informal questions from reporters more frequently than his predecessors, and that his administration is meeting voters “where they are in 2021,” not least on social media.
  • The Times sued the Federal Bureau of Prisons under the Freedom of Information Act to obtain more than two thousand pages of records that shine a light on the final days of Jeffrey Epstein, who killed himself in jail in 2019. The records show that officials “made mistake after mistake leading up to Mr. Epstein’s death” but “offer no support to the explosion of conspiracy theories that Mr. Epstein’s death was not a suicide,” the Times reports. The document trove constitutes “the most intimate and detailed look yet at Mr. Epstein’s final days, and offers something often missing from public accounts: his voice.”
  • On December 2, as part of a collaborative workshop, Scalawag will launch “The Press in Prison,” a guidebook intended to “help journalists integrate reporting from prison into their regular reporting cycles.” In an introductory essay, Scalawag‘s editors write that the population of incarcerated people is large enough to make “prison” the fifth-largest city in the country: “In journalism’s heyday,” they write, “it would call for at least two major daily newspapers, competing local television stations, and a public radio headquarters.”
  • Last month, Apple told the Securities and Exchange Commission that it doesn’t use nondisclosure agreements to stop staffers from talking publicly about harassment and discrimination. Cher Scarlett, a former Apple engineer and workplace organizer who was asked to sign an NDA by the company, subsequently filed a whistleblower complaint with the SEC; now she has spoken out publicly about the practice, to Insider’s Matt Drange.
  • Last week, Axios reported that many electronic air filters that schools installed as a COVID precaution are doing “more harm than good,” and noted allegations that one provider, Global Plasma Solutions, made misleading efficacy claims. Axios has now retracted the story; the site acknowledged that it did not request comment from GPS prior to publication, and “wrongly relied” on a source who advises a GPS competitor.
  • The Post’s Erik Wemple called out CNN for failing to reckon with its credulous past coverage of the Steele dossier on Trump and Russia; the network, Wemple writes, “appears content to allow its sunny, erstwhile commentary about the Steele dossier to sit alongside its grim, new commentary about the Steele dossier,” without offering any mea culpa. (ICYMI, Wemple recently discussed dossier coverage on our podcast,The Kicker.)
  • In an op-ed for the New York Times, Alan Leveritt, the publisher of the Arkansas Times, explains why his paper filed a lawsuit challenging a state law that bars public bodies from doing business with contractors until they pledge not to boycott Israel: “We don’t take political positions in return for advertising,” Leveritt writes. An appeals court backed the paper, but recently reheard the case, which could now end up at the Supreme Court.
  • Recently, Caroline Nokes, a Conservative Party lawmaker in the UK, alleged that Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s father, Stanley, once touched her inappropriately. After hearing Nokes speak out, Ailbhe Rea, a journalist at the New Statesman, decided to share her own story of being touched by Stanley Johnson. Like Nokes, “I gain nothing from” speaking out, Rea writes, but “this is Stanley Johnson’s problem, not mine or Nokes’s.”
  • And the Salt Lake Tribune and AccuWeather will update the maps of Utah that they use to reflect how climate change and allocation issues have altered the boundaries of the state’s Great Salt Lake. State maps typically show the lake as “a familiar blue footprint spreading across northwest Utah,” the Tribune writes. In reality, it is now “a puddle of its former self, rimmed by vast reaches of exposed lake bed.”

ICYMI: The Kyle Rittenhouse trial, the media, and the bigger picture

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.

TOP IMAGE: Barbed wire and a solar powered camera are seen on the Polish-Belarusian border in the administrative district of Gmina Szudzialowo, Poland on August 14, 2021. Belarusian authorities have started pushing refugees, mainly from Iraq over the border with Poland as retaliation against economic santcions by the EU for the mistreatment of political prisonsers and citizens taking part in anti-government demonstrations. While in 2020 less than a 100 refugees were registered crossing the border from Belarus in the previous weeks well over 400 have entered Poland. (Photo by STR/NurPhoto)