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Doubts cast over Belarus teddy bear drop

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Doubts cast over Belarus teddy bear drop
16:22 CEST+02:00
A Swedish group that claims to have dropped hundreds of 'pro free-speech' teddy bears over a Belarusian town early this morning has released a video that they say shows their stunt taking place. But no teddy bears have been found on the ground.

The footage, shot from the ground in the town of Ivianiec, shows a small, single engine Jodel aircraft cruising in over the city, located about 75 kilometres west of Minsk.

Several small objects with what appear to be parachutes can be seen floating down from the plane over the city with its landmark Church of Saint Euphrosyne clearly visible in the video.

In the video (embedded below), a banner can be seen with text referencing Belarusian independence, which was celebrated on Tuesday, July 3rd.

However, the manager of the only hotel in Ivianiec told The Local that, as far as she knew, no teddy bears had been found.

"We haven't seen any teddy bears or any other kind of bears falling from the sky," she said.

"We can see the church from the hotel. I was tending my tomatoes early this morning and I'm sure I would have heard something."

While the stated goal of the stunt, organized by Swedish public relations firm Studio Total, had been to drop the plane's cargo of 1,000 pro-democracy teddy bears on the presidential palace in Minsk, they now claim they were forced to divert after being contacted by airport radio operators on the ground.

"We got a call from the airport in Russian and we got a bit nervous," the pilot told The Local.

"Storm clouds were also looming at the start of the journey, but we managed to get in and out without any real problems."

Related images of teddy bear drop from Studio Total:

Despite denials from the Belarusian Ministry of Defence, as well as a lack of reports from residents of Minsk or Ivianiec of having seen any teddy bears falling from the sky, representatives from Studio Total remain adamant that the pilots did fly the small plane in and out of Belarus in a show of solidarity with groups fighting to bring an end to the rule of president Alexander Lukashenko.

"I can assure you that the plane flew into Belarusian airspace. This was not some sort of hoax," Tomas Mazetti of Studio Total told The Local.

Several media outlets remained sceptical about the teddy bear "bombardment" of Belarus, as Studio Total has been known to pull the wool over journalists' eyes in the past.

In 2005, Studio Total made a splash when it launched the fictional Kulturpartiet ('Culture Party') which turned out to be a PR gimmick carried out to spark a debate on culture issues.

And in 2011, Studio Total fooled journalists around the world with the launch of the fictional Austrian International School of Sex (AISOS), which in reality was part of a publicity campaign meant to draw attention to Austria's low birth rate.

Speaking Wednesday with media trade publication Resumé, Swedish Belarus expert Martin Uggla said he thought the stunt was probably a hoax.

"I can't say it 100 percent, but it certainly seems improbable," he told Resumé, pointing out that no opposition groups were discussing the action later in the day.

Nevertheless, Mazetti maintained that Studio Total has carried out dozens of other "legitimate" publicity campaigns, including Wednesday's pro-democracy teddy bear drop.

"It's one thing to make something up about a sex school, but the fight for free speech in Belarus is not a joking matter," he said.

"This campaign is credible and has helped draw attention to an issue we feel is very important...we're good at getting attention so we wanted to use what we were good at."

He explained, however, that the teddy bear stunt wasn't meant to prompt debate about how well media outlets check their facts, but rather to support groups like Charter 97 and "Tell the Truth!" which are fighting for free speech in Belarus - a country ruled since 1994 by Lukashenko, who is often referred to as "Europe's last dictator".

Editor's note: following the release of additional details by Studio Total as well as teddy bear sightings on the ground in Belarus, the flight has since been confirmed. Read more in The Local's follow-up story: Belarus teddy bear 'bombers' unmasked

David Landes

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