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  • BAJ: «Belarusian independent media are technologically ahead of the media markets of neighboring countries»

    The Belaru­sian Asso­ci­a­tion of Jour­nal­ists (BAJ) was dis­solved by the author­i­ties in 2021. Quick­ly resum­ing its activ­i­ties abroad, the orga­ni­za­tion con­tin­ues to keep the inter­na­tion­al jour­nal­is­tic community’s atten­tion on the dire state of free­dom of speech in Belarus. Reform.news spoke with BAJ Deputy Chair­man Barys Haret­s­ki about how, despite repres­sion and reduced fund­ing, Belaru­sian media man­age to stay at the tech­no­log­i­cal fore­front and main­tain the trust of the Belaru­sian audi­ence.

    Barys Haret­s­ki. Pho­to: Reform.news

    — Human rights activ­i­ties have extend­ed beyond Belarus. Jour­nal­ists in exile need legal assis­tance. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, it seems that this focus will remain nec­es­sary because 37 of our col­leagues are impris­oned, and the trend is not improv­ing.

    Boris explains that there were years when the edu­ca­tion­al direc­tion took prece­dence in BAJ’s work. At that time, there was less pres­sure on the media, and edu­ca­tion was the most rel­e­vant issue. Train­ing pro­grams still exist today.

    — And now there is still a demand for edu­ca­tion, new tech­nolo­gies, new tools, and it is impor­tant for media pro­fes­sion­als to under­stand how to work with them. How­ev­er, the demand is slight­ly low­er now for sev­er­al rea­sons: today Belaru­sian inde­pen­dent media are tech­no­log­i­cal­ly ahead of the media mar­kets of neigh­bor­ing countries—2020 gave us all a huge push to work very quick­ly and deeply. On the oth­er hand, today the media sec­tor is in very dif­fi­cult con­di­tions. When you’re in sur­vival mode, you think less about edu­ca­tion and more about how to find the means to con­tin­ue your work.

    A sig­nif­i­cant part of the work involves inter­na­tion­al infor­ma­tion efforts. BAJ is a mem­ber of numer­ous inter­na­tion­al orga­ni­za­tions: includ­ing the Inter­na­tion­al and Euro­pean Fed­er­a­tion of Jour­nal­ists, IFEX, and col­lab­o­rates with Reporters With­out Bor­ders, the Com­mit­tee to Pro­tect Jour­nal­ists, and many nation­al jour­nal­ist unions and asso­ci­a­tions in Europe. Barys explains that infor­ma­tion is col­lect­ed from pub­lic and pri­vate sources for dis­tri­b­u­tion and to inform inter­na­tion­al orga­ni­za­tions about the state of Belaru­sian media.

    — Work­ing togeth­er with inter­na­tion­al part­ners, we cre­ate oppor­tu­ni­ties for jour­nal­ists, pro­mote the Belaru­sian issue, so that Belarus remains on the agen­da.

    Before its legal dis­so­lu­tion in 2021, BAJ had a strong sys­tem of region­al branch­es and com­mu­ni­ties because inde­pen­dent jour­nal­ism in the regions was always a strong focus. With the legal dis­so­lu­tion and the des­ig­na­tion of BAJ as an extrem­ist for­ma­tion, the orga­ni­za­tion can­not con­duct any activ­i­ties with­in Belarus.

    — Our region­al focus today has expand­ed to six coun­tries where col­leagues and media oper­ate: Belarus, Lithua­nia, Poland, Geor­gia, Ger­many, and Ukraine. Wher­ev­er Belaru­sian jour­nal­ists are, there are needs. The main thing that has changed since 2020 is the work­ing con­di­tions.

    Барыс Гарэцкі ў Вільні

    Barys Haret­s­ki. Pho­to: Reform.news

    Before the dis­so­lu­tion, mem­bers paid dues and accord­ing­ly had pri­or­i­ties in cer­tain edu­ca­tion­al and orga­ni­za­tion­al oppor­tu­ni­ties. Since 2020, BAJ has done every­thing for media pro­fes­sion­als, regard­less of whether the per­son is a mem­ber of the orga­ni­za­tion or not.

    — Even though the Supreme Court ille­gal­ly dis­solved us, for BAJ, all mem­bers remain mem­bers. And of course, today we help with our pro­grams not only BAJ mem­bers. The only thing exclu­sive to BAJ mem­bers is the inter­na­tion­al press card from IFJ. The Inter­na­tion­al Fed­er­a­tion of Jour­nal­ists issues press cards only to mem­bers of nation­al jour­nal­ist unions. Regard­ing repressed col­leagues and those impris­oned, each and every one of them is impor­tant to us, regard­less of whether they are in BAJ or not.

    Cur­rent­ly, BAJ has about 1,300 mem­bers. After being rec­og­nized as an ‘extrem­ist for­ma­tion’, there was even a cer­tain surge in join­ing the orga­ni­za­tion as peo­ple expressed their sol­i­dar­i­ty.

    — What did we lose due to the legal dis­so­lu­tion? Due to the dis­so­lu­tion, BAJ lost the abil­i­ty to pub­lish its offi­cial mag­a­zine, ‘Abazhur’. How­ev­er, under the cur­rent cir­cum­stances, we still could not pub­lish it in Belarus. The work of the BAJ Ethics Com­mis­sion also became impos­si­ble. In pre­vi­ous years, the com­mis­sion was an impor­tant body where soci­ety, legal enti­ties, and indi­vid­u­als could file com­plaints against the media. In 2021, the com­mis­sion ceased its work because even approach­ing it has now become ‘ille­gal’ from the per­spec­tive of law enforce­ment.

    Legal enti­ties or indi­vid­u­als could file com­plaints against any media if they felt their rights were vio­lat­ed. This was an essen­tial mech­a­nism for pro­fes­sion­al reg­u­la­tion, Boris explains.

    «Jour­nal­ists don’t have rub­ber batons, bul­lets, or hand­cuffs. We have words»
    BAJ reg­u­lar­ly pub­lish­es the elec­tron­ic bul­letin «Media in Belarus», «Mon­i­tor­ing of Free­dom of Speech», and oth­ers. These are pro­fes­sion­al stud­ies that record the lev­el of free­dom of speech and inci­dents involv­ing the media in Belarus. Accord­ing to Barys, such doc­u­ments are nec­es­sary because they are tools for influ­enc­ing the sit­u­a­tion.

    — Jour­nal­ists don’t have rub­ber batons, bul­lets, or hand­cuffs. We have words. Jour­nal­ists can high­light a prob­lem for soci­ety through infor­ma­tion­al activ­i­ties, and we talk about the prob­lems of Belaru­sian media free­dom. Clear­ly, oper­a­tional reports, for exam­ple, about the deten­tion of jour­nal­ists, are more aimed at our soci­ety. Mon­i­tor­ing and research are done to show the world what the sit­u­a­tion with free­dom of speech in Belarus real­ly looks like. Some­times you sud­den­ly hear voic­es from for­eign col­leagues say­ing that it doesn’t seem so bad in Belarus. In real­i­ty, the sit­u­a­tion is ter­ri­ble.

    БАЖ Ігар Лосік партрэты палітзняволеных

    Pho­to: Reform.news

    Cur­rent­ly, Belarus is ranked 157th in the World Press Free­dom Index by Reporters With­out Bor­ders. Accord­ing Boris, most of these rank­ings con­sist of local mon­i­tor­ing reports released by orga­ni­za­tions pro­tect­ing the rights of the jour­nal­is­tic com­mu­ni­ty.

    — Unfor­tu­nate­ly, today we can say very lit­tle about our activ­i­ties pub­licly. There are pro­grams to sup­port jour­nal­ists, legal sup­port in Belarus and abroad. For this, our lawyers work. We can still review mate­ri­als and advise peo­ple before and after pub­li­ca­tion.

    In addi­tion, last year, the nation­al jour­nal­ism com­pe­ti­tion ‘Free Word’ was revived. Pre­vi­ous­ly, only mem­bers of the orga­ni­za­tion could par­tic­i­pate, but now the com­pe­ti­tion is run by the Euro­pean Fed­er­a­tion of Jour­nal­ists (to avoid ‘extrem­ist’ threats to col­leagues), so any­one can join. The con­fer­ence based on the results of the com­pe­ti­tion is an impor­tant jour­nal­is­tic event because it records the state of Belaru­sian jour­nal­ism, says Barys.

    — Also, over the past year, BAJ and its part­ners have held more than 25 var­i­ous sol­i­dar­i­ty actions in sup­port of Belaru­sian jour­nal­ists in dif­fer­ent coun­tries around the world, from Aus­tralia to Cana­da. Pho­tos and names of polit­i­cal pris­on­ers are on the BAJ web­site.

    Any­one or any orga­ni­za­tion can print por­traits and sup­port the impris­oned. Barys con­sid­ers impris­oned jour­nal­ists, the sit­u­a­tion with free­dom of speech, and the inten­si­fi­ca­tion of repres­sion to be the main chal­lenges for the com­mu­ni­ty.

    — Work­ing as a jour­nal­ist in Belarus is impos­si­ble, so the media sec­tor is seri­ous­ly suf­fer­ing. Instead of nation­al pub­li­ca­tions like ‘Zerka­lo’, ‘Nasha Niva’, and region­al pub­li­ca­tions, pseu­do-pub­lic-polit­i­cal pub­li­ca­tions like ‘Tochka.by’, ‘Sput­nik’ are being cre­at­ed. Under the guise of inde­pen­dent jour­nal­ism, pro-gov­ern­ment media are spread­ing.

    The web­sites of inde­pen­dent media are blocked, and sub­scrib­ing to Telegram can be dan­ger­ous. The media land­scape is chang­ing, and the Belaru­sian audi­ence is increas­ing­ly cut off from truth­ful infor­ma­tion, Barys notes.

    — On the oth­er hand, there is a plus in the devel­op­ment of tech­nol­o­gy. With blocked sites, we have rock­et pages, prompt­ing ser­vices, YouTube. Even if a per­son is not sub­scribed to the media, they can see the video in trends. Read­ers have learned to use anonymiz­ers and VPNs.

    Барыс Гарэцкі БАЖ

    Pho­to: Reform.news

    «The dic­ta­to­r­i­al regime wants peo­ple to fol­low like obe­di­ent sheep to wher­ev­er Azaron­ak points»
    Three years ago, «KP in Belarus» jour­nal­ist Henadz Mazyey­ka was impris­oned for a sim­ple com­ment he took from a friend of Andrey Zelt­sar. Work­ing as a socio-polit­i­cal jour­nal­ist in Belarus is undoubt­ed­ly dan­ger­ous, but it can­not be said that jour­nal­ism in Belarus doesn’t exist, believes the deputy chair­man of BAJ. A few inde­pen­dent region­al pub­li­ca­tions remain in Belarus, albeit ones that are as far removed from pol­i­tics as pos­si­ble.

    — Media that have relo­cat­ed abroad have found the strength to refor­mat and pro­duce qual­i­ty jour­nal­is­tic con­tent for Belarus from out­side. How­ev­er, we must admit that our work abroad is affect­ed by the state’s secre­cy. Even sim­ple infor­ma­tion is fil­tered and sta­tis­tics are altered, mak­ing it more chal­leng­ing to work now.

    Barys shares the BAJ say­ing: in elec­tions, politi­cians fight, but jour­nal­ists suf­fer. A series of repres­sions against all inde­pen­dent media accom­pa­ny every elec­tion cycle. The author­i­ties see jour­nal­ists as their main ene­mies.

    — The dic­ta­tor­ship believes that a prob­lem doesn’t need to be fixed if no one knows about it. For them, the prob­lem is when soci­ety learns about the issue. This was also true in the Sovi­et Union, where any crit­i­cal infor­ma­tion was banned. The dic­ta­to­r­i­al regime wants peo­ple to fol­low like obe­di­ent sheep to wher­ev­er Azaron­ak points. So that peo­ple don’t look at their salaries, the num­ber of polit­i­cal pris­on­ers, or sud­den­ly see how peo­ple live in a free Euro­pean soci­ety. That’s why jour­nal­ists are tar­get­ed because it could be dif­fer­ent.

    Jour­nal­ists are accused of lead­ing peo­ple to protest, Barys con­tin­ues, but that is not true.

    — In 2020, soci­ety encoun­tered infor­ma­tion that could not leave peo­ple indif­fer­ent. Yes, this infor­ma­tion was spread by the media. Yes, they report­ed on those who died from coro­n­avirus. Yes, they report­ed on those beat­en at protests. By read­ing truth­ful inde­pen­dent media, peo­ple took to the streets because it couldn’t go on like that.

    Барыс Гарэцкі марафон салідарнасці

    Pho­to: Reform.news

    «Our pub­li­ca­tions are a suc­cess sto­ry»
    After being forced to leave, the sit­u­a­tion in the media changed. In Belarus, media could earn mon­ey from adver­tis­ing, but now those oppor­tu­ni­ties are sig­nif­i­cant­ly less. Much depends on donors, Barys explains.

    — But col­leagues are also striv­ing for self-mon­e­ti­za­tion. For exam­ple, ‘Zerka­lo’ has enough adver­tis­ing slots — which means some adver­tis­ing rev­enue goes to the edi­to­r­i­al office. How­ev­er, the vol­ume of such income is, of course, not com­pa­ra­ble to the times when we worked in Belarus.

    The donor mar­ket is also chang­ing. Until 2022, Belarus was the only coun­try in the region that required sig­nif­i­cant finan­cial sup­port for inde­pen­dent media work, Barys con­tin­ues.

    — After the start of the full-scale inva­sion, the media sec­tors of three coun­tries in our region simul­ta­ne­ous­ly need sup­port: Belaru­sian, Ukrain­ian, and lib­er­al Russ­ian. There is a cer­tain com­pe­ti­tion. How­ev­er, Belaru­sian media are well-regard­ed. Our met­rics show that Belaru­sian media have not lost their audi­ence. This is not like Russ­ian pub­li­ca­tions, which cov­er a small per­cent­age of the entire Russ­ian audi­ence. Our pub­li­ca­tions are a suc­cess sto­ry.

    In some Euro­pean coun­tries, there is a cer­tain rev­er­ence for Rus­sia, so they are ready to spend more mon­ey on Russ­ian media, Barys observes.

    — The dif­fer­ence between Belaru­sian and Russ­ian pub­li­ca­tions is that Belaru­sian media can reach their audi­ence. Accord­ing to var­i­ous esti­mates, today, the inde­pen­dent Belaru­sian media sec­tor accounts for about a third of the entire Belaru­sian audi­ence. That’s about three mil­lion peo­ple. Fund­ing Russ­ian media is like adding drops to the ocean.

    Boris is keep­ing an eye on recent devel­op­ments around the TV chan­nel «Bel­sat». He believes it would be very trag­ic if fund­ing sud­den­ly halved, as has been pub­licly stat­ed.

    — If tomor­row half or even a third of the channel’s staff find them­selves out on the street, we will have a large num­ber of unem­ployed Belaru­sian media pro­fes­sion­als. And they can’t just move to oth­er pub­li­ca­tions because those pub­li­ca­tions don’t have such oppor­tu­ni­ties.

    Despite the new chal­lenges, Barys Haret­s­ki hopes that glob­al­ly in 2024–2025, the Belaru­sian inde­pen­dent media sec­tor will be more or less okay.

    — I hope the Belaru­sian media sec­tor will remain approx­i­mate­ly the same as it is now. And if we’re lucky, it will even expand with new ambi­tious projects. The amount of mon­ey may decrease, but new tech­nolo­gies and new ways of reach­ing the audi­ence are emerg­ing.

    When asked what moti­vates him to con­tin­ue his activ­i­ties, Barys responds:

    — My col­leagues in prison moti­vate me. They are not abstract fig­ures. I worked togeth­er with Poc­zobut, and we trav­eled a lot. I worked with Kate­ri­na Andree­va at many events. Andrei Alexan­drov was once the deputy chair­man of BAJ. You could approach Mari­na Zolo­to­va, the edi­tor-in-chief of TUT.by, with any ques­tion. They are behind bars — that’s my moti­va­tion to con­tin­ue. They are my friends, and I can imag­ine what a tri­al it is to be in a prison cell. I could be in their place if I hadn’t left in time. It’s their fate, we must think about them and strive to free them all.

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