Sunday’s election in Belarus was shaping up to be historic amid the largest opposition demonstrations since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. AP’s two Minsk-based staffers, reporter Yuras Kamanau and photographer Sergei Grits, had been covering the protests led by former teacher Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who was challenging longtime authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko and whose husband had already been jailed.
In the week leading up to Sunday's vote, Kamanau and Grits were joined by Germany-based video journalist Mstyslav Chernov, the trio making up a dynamic team that scooped the competition and delivered compelling reporting and images throughout the week despite growing threats from authorities and amid an internet blackout that began as the votes rolled in.
The highlights included a powerful profile of Tsikhanouskaya, whom they traveled with as she met with thousands of supporters.
The team also dug into the impact of COVID-19 on the country and why it was driving people to the streets. They profiled a 26-year-old movie producer whose grandfather died of the virus in March as Lukashenko downplayed the virus and told his country not to worry about it. “I feel absolutely unprotected in this country. It can't protect you because this problem is ignored,” she told the AP team.
On Sunday, the team spent the day reporting on the lines at polling stations and talking to voters. After the state-run exit poll was announced showing Lukashenko with 80 percent of the vote, thousands took to the streets. They were met with force by riot police as the government shut down the internet and tried to close the country off from the rest of the world.
Neither action stopped the resourceful AP team from getting the story and getting it out to AP’s customers around the world.
While covering the protests, police beat Chernov and put him in a police van. Several journalists already had been arrested and/or forced to leave the country leading up to the vote, and the AP team took extensive safety precautions, but police used brute force against protesters and anyone else they saw. After treatment at a hospital, Chernov's main concern was getting his footage out to the world while the internet was down.
Grits managed to figure out a way to get photos and video out using an Android phone and a private network. It was slow – but it was faster than competitive agencies and it allowed AP to continue transmitting content from Minsk instead of having to leave the capital.
AP’s all-formats team in Moscow, particularly senior producer Tanya Titova and reporter Jim Heintz, helped the team with accreditation and access as well as delivering their reporting and images to AP customers. When it became clear that it would take a long time to get video of protests out, the Moscow team quickly picked up user-generated content to provide customers with coverage.
The AP delivered more video edits and coverage than the competition – and did it faster on election night. Chernov’s video was among the most-used, heavily featured the following day by major broadcasters and other news outlets. Grits’ photos and Kamanau’s text were featured prominently on websites around the world.