Ernest Alesin: “I want people not to be ashamed of their ethnicity”

Ernest Alesin. Būtent festival

On National Communities’ day, Media4Change talks to Ernest Alesin, the head of the Association of Lithuanian Media in the Languages of Ethnic Communities, which unites several media outlets in Polish, Russian and English, about the impact of ethnic media in ethnic communities.

According to the media monitoring data of Media4Change, ethnic communities are written about, but their voice is featured infrequently – last year, only 3-4 percent of publications spoke to Poles or Russians. Ernest Alesin, the head of the Association of Lithuanian Media in the Languages of Ethnic Communities and the program director in RusRadio LT, says that ethnic media alone cannot fill these gaps. According to him, representation in the national media has a significant impact on communities in Lithuania.

– In your career, you have many years of work experience in various ethnic media outlets. In your opinion, what is the difference between ethnic media and other Lithuanian national and regional media?

– Nothing but language. This is a very important and precious aspect and I really want everyone to value it. We follow the same conditions, the code of ethics, we are divided into the same types, regional, national, we are members of the Lithuanian Union of Journalists.

There is probably more cultural, ethnic detail, but to put it shortly, there are really no differences and we are working hard to prove it. We have the support of journalists, colleagues, so I think we are doing very well.

 You are the head of the Association of Lithuanian Media in the Languages of Ethnic Communities, which unites several media outlets in Polish, Russian and English. Are there any additional difficulties faced by ethnic media? How would you generally assess the current situation of ethnic media in Lithuania?

– The very existence of ethnic media in Lithuania shows that we have managed to preserve our identity. I believe that the biggest challenge remains the same: that most of the outlets in the languages ​​of ethnic communities cannot survive on their own. The rights of these outlets to exist by commercial means or to survive from simple advertising are complicated.

For one, these days it is virtually impossible to participate in the commercial market without market research, but the access to that research is very limited. Another thing, maintaining not only financial but also human resources, has been difficult in Lithuania for a long time – [people of other ethnicities] are not taught about media in their language, the specifics of such media and other subjects. We understand that no one would go to the East to study, because then it would be practically impossible to have a job here, and when we talk about Western education, the subtleties or peculiarities of the local community are not touched upon.

The Polish-language and Russian-language media face different challenges. First of all, because of their orientation. In this case, it must be assumed that there are people of very different ethnicities and religious views among the Russian-speaking audience. When we talk about the Vilnius region, we forget that there are not only Poles and Russians, but also Belarusians, so-called locals, Old Believers, Orthodox, Catholics. And the thing that unites them is the Russian language.

Polish, meanwhile, requires a broader format because, as it is often said, there are two Polish languages – local, Lithuanian, and the real one, from Poland. This is again a huge divide.

The events in Ukraine have severely violated the ability of the Russian-language media to participate in the commercial market, and the Polish media are always forced to seek help from Poland, which the Russian-speaking media cannot do because then it would become hostile.

– What content and audience does RusRadio LT specifically focus on? What is the mission of this media outlet as a Russian-speaking radio station?

– In 1995, when I started working for the Polish radio station Znad Wilii as a Russian presenter, being a Jew, I was proud that Lithuania had such a multilingual, multifunctional idea. Then I became the program director of RusRadio LT.

Our main mission is to preserve the opportunity to have news on the radio, as well as content that provides entertainment, information, and preserves language, culture, music. We are an entertainment radio station, but in the face of events in Ukraine, we have taken our time to inform as well. We feel obligated to inform the Russian-speaking audience about the situation in Lithuania.

Of course, the number of people who cannot read in Lithuanian is decreasing. Research shows that the first four online media outlets used by Russian-speakers in Lithuania are in Lithuanian and only the fifth place in Russian. During the same research, we found out that foreign media outlets start from the 11th place, that is, the news is primarily gathered from Lithuania. And they are read in Lithuanian.

However, such every day information as social information, support, children schooling, vaccinations in the mother tongue simply bring a person closer to the services provided by the state and instead of foreign or border policy, make them think about their duty as a citizen – what they pay for, what support they receive, how great e. systems are, albeit sometimes not functioning. It becomes a common problem. Our goal is to show that this is our state, our homeland, and the language we speak has nothing to do with that content.

Other outlets in our association are different. Me and Znad Wilii have been associated for more than a quarter of a century, I started my career there, so I know the situation. They have a slightly different challenge, that is, not only to preserve the Polish identity in Lithuania and to report on everything that is happening, but they also took a huge responsibility to learn everything about the situation in densely populated areas by Lithuanian Poles. To have that first source from our eastern Lithuania. Representing foreign policy, Polish-Lithuanian interests, this is the only place where it is possible to learn about things happening in Poland. In other words, this small regional station is a bridge between Lithuania and Poland.

It has consistently sought to inform the community since 1992, was politically active, always respected by the institutions of both countries, and has a show that all Lithuanian politicians come to, because when they talk to the local Polish community, their messages are carried to Poland at the same time. It is a huge national mechanism, and a historically very important radio station, which was the first in Lithuania to carry out the mission of defending ethnic communities. Immediately after broadcasts began in 1992, the news was provided in three languages ​​- Russian, Lithuanian, and Polish. They have preserved that uniqueness, expanded into online media, follows the development of culture, education, the Polish community, not forgetting religious rites. Their work is truly invaluable and the biggest challenge for them remains survival itself, as our country’s contribution is much less than that of a neighbouring country.

I think this is something that Lithuania can be proud of, because TVP Wilno that has just arrived is just an editorial office that makes one small show from Lithuania once a day, and Znad Wilii has been in Lithuania for almost 30 years. Now they are also very involved in the whirlwind of events in Belarus and educate the community, participating in projects related to the integration of the Belarusian community. Even without the resources, they do a fantastic job, a real knowledge media.

– Do you think that ethnic media represents their communities and the problems they face better than the media in Lithuanian?

– I talked about radio before, now I will expand a bit. We do not have any television, save for LRT. National radio station RusRadio LT, regional radio stations – Raduga in Klaipėda, Znad Wilii in Vilnius. We have a very limited amount of print media in Russian: Ekspress Nedelia weekly, which also publishes the newspaper Pensioner, and they sell about 30 thousand copies. Also, newspapers Obzor and Litovskij Kurjer. They are all different and have their own editorial policies, and shed light on and evaluate events in their own way.

Depending on the region, Visaginas has TTS, Klaipeda has Atvira Klaipeda in Russian and Klaipeda in Russian, which are practically translations, but do their job. Therefore, some Klaipeda residents rely more on Obzor’s articles, less often on Klaipeda, which also shows a certain tendency. Ekspress Nedelia tries to give voice to all the actors of the political game, but Lithuanian politicians could participate more actively there, because often the same representatives of several parties or organizations appear. These tools are not by politicians to communicate with the audience.

Regarding Polish media, Kurier Wileński is also known as a national daily newspaper, which talks about current Lithuanian and Polish affairs and events in Polish. But it is very difficult for them to do something on their own because there is no support or dissemination of information from the state.

So, do they represent them better? Represent which of those groups? Because as recent events have shown, those people are very different. In social media, according to the reactions, we see the same polarization as in the rest of Lithuania – from pro-vaxxers to anti-vaxxers, conspiracy theories about health, participation in marches for one thing or another.

Therefore, I think that we do not reflect the subtleties of Lithuanian ethnic communities. In part, this is due to the fact that we do not have platforms for dialogue, we have limited access to contact our audience. There is no discussion with ethnic media.

The dangerous aspect is that the threat is not external. The main threat is domestic. Whoever attracts that group will have the most important tool. Thus, one way of dialogue with this audience is to support the media in the languages of ethnic communities and to communicate through them, directly, as much as possible and in as much detail.

I have not mentioned one last outlet that is a member of our association, and it is The Lithuanian Tribune, which actually performs a dual mission, as there is a new generation of emigrants who no longer speak Russian or Polish and our Lithuanians living abroad. It is also an opportunity for foreigners living in Lithuania to delve into social information. Besides the city of Vilnius, there is a lack of communication in other languages from other municipalities. Therefore, ethnic media is important for Lithuanian citizens, for those who have a temporary residence permit and for citizens of various ethnicities.

– Media4Change media monitoring analysts note that criminal publications do not shy away from mentioning ethnicity – Russians, Poles, Roma often become the subject of scandalous headlines. What do you think of such publications? Do you tend to mention the ethnicity of the offender or suspect in your practice?

– As a Lithuanian Jew, I am categorically against such a divide. Having one of the best passports in the world – a Lithuanian passport – I am a citizen, like many of us. After all, citizenship is not on an ethnic basis. Citizenship is a mutual obligation between the citizen and the state, it is both a right and a duty.

Undoubtedly, the fact that the Lithuanian nation is the creator of this state and shapes the state policy, created this state, sacrificed everything for it is an indisputable fact. And the nation was able to communicate with other nations for many centuries in the time of Gediminas, to bring the Tartars and Karaites. By inviting Jews, accepting Poles, having the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, we were able to form all this and have the support of ethnic communities in forming the national state of Lithuania, which is why the desire to single out the ethnicity of a bad person is incomprehensible.

It is very difficult for members of the Roma community to be in public because they realize that they are appear in the media because of crimes or some kind of project is going on, and everything is shown through a negative prism. How difficult it is for the Roma within the community themselves, who are fighting for Roma rights, to be the representatives of the people of their ethnicity, when in a fleeing moment their whole work is wiped out by such media decisions. The same goes for the Jewish community. Obviously, the people who committed the crime can be of any ethnicity. So, in my opinion, discrimination on ethnic grounds is illogical.

If we see how migrants from different countries are discriminated against in the field of logistics, say, drivers from Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Ukraine experience different types of discrimination, then we can single out the specifics of community discrimination. But we are do not look into it.

So, it seems to me that if we evaluate the offenses of citizens – and the criminal or administrative code speaks of misdemeanours of citizens and the court does not value ethnicity – the addition of a homophobic or nationalist nuance will in no way help to strengthen the state.

– When researching the Lithuanian media, we also notice that groups are often talked about without their presence. Russians, Poles were spoken to by 3-4 percent of publications about them in 2020. Do you think that ethnic media can fill these gaps?

– Definitely not. The more people of different ethnicities living in Lithuania see their representatives in the national media, see that their voice is heard by politicians, political scientists, journalists, the more confidence they will have that some change or solution can be achieved.

The media in the languages ​​of ethnic communities should also be used more by active people, but there are so few of them. We have some examples, we had Poles, Tatars in high positions, but we have very few people who would be visible as people of another ethnicity, who would be represented.

And they do little work with their communities. That would make a huge impact. I myself had a big project with the EuroBasket, no one chose me because of ethnicity, but based on knowledge, but I am proud of that and I think a lot of people are proud to have had such an event. We need more events of which we would be proud, days dedicated to different ethnicities. Lithuanian citizens should be further educated about ethnic communities, that perhaps they have long since overcome those stereotypes.

10 years ago, we could not imagine that the LGBT issue could be moved, and now it is no longer strange. That means we can move on regarding this issue as well, and perhaps if the technologies around you have already changed, so have the people. And in most cases, you will no longer know that those people are of a different ethnicity. They study, live, work, build businesses near you and they just don’t want to stand out.

I want people not to be ashamed of their ethnicity. I am not ashamed and I am a Lithuanian citizen, and for me, these two concepts complement each other.

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