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34 Multimedia Magazine from Belarus to receive IPI's 2012 Free Media Pioneer Award

(IPI/IFEX) - Vienna, 15 May 2012 – The International Press Institute (IPI) today named independent Belarusian youth publication 34 Multimedia Magazine the winner of IPI's 2012 Free Media Pioneer Award, which is sponsored this year by multimedia company Grupo Infobae.

Since 1996, the honour has recognised the work of one media organization each year for having improved press freedom and media independence in its home country or region.

Founded and published by Belarusian journalist Iryna Vidanava, 34 Multimedia Magazine is a revived multimedia version of Studentskaya Dumka (Students' Thought), a banned, Belarusian-language youth magazine. When the government in 2005 revoked the magazine's registration – a bureaucratic requirement for any Belarusian organisation – the publication's editors skirted legal restrictions by going digital. The publication now takes advantage of modern technology to create an entirely new generation of samizdat, not just in a multimedia CD format, but also through the publication's website and on Facebook.

IPI Executive Director Alison Bethel McKenzie said: “We are very pleased to name 34 Multimedia Magazine as the recipient of this year's IPI Free Media Pioneer Award. We have long been inspired by its staff's fortitude and commitment to quality journalism in the face of trying circumstances. They provide a shining example that independent journalism can survive and flourish using diverse media.”

An independent jury of five members of IPI's Executive Board selected 34 Multimedia Magazine to receive the honour. IPI will present the award during a special ceremony at its Annual World Congress, which will take place from June 23 to 26 in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago.

IPI recently spoke with Vidanava about the publication.

IPI: Please tell us a little about 34 Multimedia Magazine. Describe what topics you cover and whether there is a guiding philosophy as to what you hope to accomplish by doing so.

Vidanava: 34 Multimedia Magazine is an independent, non-commercial youth publication produced and distributed on compact discs and online, which does not require state registration. In addition to continuing publication on compact disc, the magazine has also established itself as one of Belarus' leading cultural and social websites (the online version was launched in October 2009), targeting those aged 16 to 25 years old. Since 2005, our magazine has been on the cutting edge of “alternative media”.

The independent publication 34 Multimedia Magazine promotes freedom of speech and expression, supports independent culture, fosters civic activism and provides young Belarusians with objective information about youth issues in Belarus and Europe.

The transformation from a print to a multimedia edition has allowed the magazine to become even more attractive to youth. In addition to text and pictures, the CD format allows the use of youth-attractive video, sound, music and flash animation. It also allows a much more substantial publication to be produced. An average size of 34 is 600 MB of text, illustrations, video clips, audio clips and flash animation. Since the compact disc can easily be read, replicated or disseminated on any computer, an almost limitless number of copies can be burned and disseminated underground. In fact, 34's slogan is “Make Your Own Copy!” Every issue has a special topic of interest and unique design.

Since August 2009, 34 Magazine is also available online. With the new site, the 34 team targets surfers under 26, hoping to hook young people on independent information through a multimedia format and provocative content. 34mag.net is not an ordinary website but a unique online magazine, a webmag focusing on youth. Like the CD publication, it presents the underground and counterculture scenes in a broad sense, as anything excluded from the official information landscape. The goal is to expose this alternative reality and introduce it to broader circles of youth. Instead of just reporting news, the webmag helps shape youth trends in Belarus, reports on Western youth life and offers columns by young creative figures. Like the CD edition, it does not reprint materials; all content is original.

The webmag focuses on events taking place under the radar screen and features those who are misunderstood by Belarus' conservative society. It continues the tradition of the print and CD magazines, which had a reputation for breaking stereotypes and promoting tolerance. The webmag does not focus on unusual youth just to be different. It spotlights those who are civically active, struggling for freedom of expression, promoting independent culture, self-organizing and trying to foster positive change. Like the CD magazine, the online version employs a multimedia format, including video, audio, music, flash animation, photos and text, resulting in a distinctive coverage of issues. Some of our materials are translated in English and you can access them here.

IPI: When did you found 34 Multimedia Magazine and was there a specific incident that made you decide to do so?

Vidanava: 34 Multimedia Magazine, formerly Studentskaya Dumka (Students' Thought), continues to be the only independent youth publication in Belarus.

Students' Thought first appeared as a newspaper in 1924. It was re-started in 1988 by pro-democratic students during the USSR's glasnost period. In 1990, it became the bulletin of the Belarusian Students' Association. During the 90s, the publication was unprofessional, small, irregular, not especially lively and not very political. But in 1999, the bulletin was transformed into an independent magazine. Despite increasing repression and economic problems in the country, it became a regular monthly and grew from 16 black-and-white to 40 colour pages. By 2005, it had boosted its circulation from 500 to 5,000 copies and had a readership estimated to be over 10,000. Belarus' repressive atmosphere pushed the magazine to become more activist and innovative. In 2003, it began organizing civic activism campaigns for young people. Known as “Become. A Self-Made. Person”, the efforts were Belarus' first Internet campaigns. The editorial team created an alternative system of distribution based on places popular among youth, including clothing boutiques, Internet cafes and music stores. The magazine also became one of the first publications in Belarus to launch its own website.

Due to its growing impact, the November 2005 issue was seized by the secret police under the pretext of being printed with “poisonous ink,” and the magazine was banned. A criminal case was opened against me, the founder and editor-in-chief. In January 2006, the magazine reappeared as Belarus' first multimedia publication produced on compact disc. The title of the new multimedia publication – 34 – comes from the third and fourth letters in the Latin alphabet, which represent the first letters of the phrase “compact disc” as well as the first Cyrillic letters in the title of the original publication Studentskaya Dumka. Moreover, Article 34 of the Belarusian Constitution guarantees Belarusian citizens the right to free access and distribution of information. The transformation from a print to a multimedia edition has allowed the magazine to become more attractive to youth, which is drawn to compact disc and other computer-friendly technology. In addition to text and pictures, the CD format allows the use of youth-attractive video, sound, music and flash animation. It also allows a much more substantial publication to be produced.

IPI: You are a historian by training. What got you into the practice of journalism?

Vidanava: In 1997, I joined the Belarusian Students' Association, when I was a third year student at the History Department of Belarusian State University. At that time Students' Thought was an internal newsletter of the Association. I started contributing to it and a few months later I was offered by the head of the organization – Ales Mikhalevich, who ran as a democratic candidate for the 2010 Presidential elections and got arrested along with other democratic candidates in December 2010 – to transform the newsletter into a youth magazine. We published the first issue of the magazine in 1998 and a few months later we obtained a state registration. I never left since then, although for a long time I was combining my three passions: history, journalism and civil society.

IPI: What has been the most difficult part of operating such a publication in Belarus, i.e., have you faced harassment, pressure, intimidation etc., and how do you deal with it?

Vidanava: Like most other independent media, our magazine, its editors and reporters have a long history of operating under pressure, often being intimidated and harassed. In the aftermath of the 2006 Presidential elections, several of our contributors were arrested and served short term administrative arrests. The original print magazine was first denied state registration and then shut down altogether by the secret police. But that forced us to be even more creative and come up with an idea of a multimedia magazine on compact discs. Often our authors were contacted by representatives of the secret police and questioned about their cooperation with the magazine. While this kind of “attention” is unpleasant, it's paid off by the feeling that you contribute to the important cause of bringing democracy to your own country, by the thrill and excitement of being a part of a cool publication, being a pioneer of the new media.

IPI: The state of press freedom in Belarus seems to have gotten more coverage in media outside the country since the protests that followed President Lukashenko's disputed December 2010 election. How does the current situation compare to the pre-election situation – is it markedly worse, or are more people simply paying attention now?

Vidanava: Please, see this piece by the International Media Support, which I contributed to. It was published in December 2011, looking back and analyzing one year since the last elections from the media perspective. I think, it answers this and one of your previous questions.

IPI: What advice would you give to other journalists operating in similarly harsh climates who want to work in their own way to advance media freedom and independence?

Vidanava: Be brave and creative, try to be one step ahead of the “bad guys”, think outside of the box, stay optimistic and believe in the victory. We are doing the right thing and we are not alone. Often we are the only source of objective information for people and we can't let them down.

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