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  • In jail, in exile, or burned out. State of Belarusian independent media as we head into 2023

    As the crackdown on independent media in Belarus continues for a third consecutive year, the state of journalism in the country is dire. With only a handful of independent journalists remaining within the country working anonymously, and 32 of their colleagues behind bars, the future of journalism in Belarus looks bleak.

    The Fix analysed the state of Belarusian independent media at the end of 2022 – and tried to find bright spots.

    Three difficult years

    Belarus has nev­er been a bea­con of free press under Alexan­der Lukashenka’s admin­is­tra­tion, but the sit­u­a­tion has sig­nif­i­cant­ly dete­ri­o­rat­ed fol­low­ing the rigged 2020 elec­tion, which was fol­lowed by mass protests that were even­tu­al­ly sup­pressed. Inde­pen­dent out­lets in the coun­try have faced wide­spread repres­sion and intim­i­da­tion.

    In 2021, Lukashenka’s regime launched a bru­tal attack on inde­pen­dent jour­nal­ists, with the offices of two of the most pop­u­lar out­lets, TUT.by and Nasha Niva, being prac­ti­cal­ly destroyed and their heads detained along with dozens of media work­ers from oth­er organ­i­sa­tions. Oth­er pro­fes­sion­als have fled the coun­try, with more than 100 choos­ing Ukraine as a safe haven, accord­ing to the Belaru­sian Asso­ci­a­tion of Jour­nal­ists (BAJ).

    On Feb­ru­ary 24, 2022 these jour­nal­ists were forced to flee again, this time from Russia’s war in Ukraine. As a result, many inde­pen­dent jour­nal­ists are now work­ing from Poland, Lithua­nia, Geor­gia, Ger­many, and the Czech Repub­lic. This sec­ond “relo­ca­tion” has had a major impact on people’s finances and men­tal health, and has added to the already neg­a­tive agen­da that jour­nal­ists have been work­ing with since the 2020 protests. Despite these chal­lenges, how­ev­er, inde­pen­dent jour­nal­ists from Belarus remain deter­mined to con­tin­ue their work, even in the face of increas­ing dan­ger and repres­sion. 

    Financial situation is stable at the moment but unpredictable

    Barys Haret­s­ki, spokesper­son for the Belaru­sian Asso­ci­a­tion of Jour­nal­ists (BAJ), notes that one major prob­lem has been the freez­ing of Ukrain­ian bank accounts belong­ing to Belaru­sian jour­nal­ists. While the BAJ has been able to help around 60 peo­ple regain access to their funds, 43 accounts remain frozen, and com­mu­ni­ca­tion with Ukrain­ian author­i­ties has slowed. 

    Haret­s­ki adds that while there are suf­fi­cient funds avail­able to sup­port media organ­i­sa­tions, find­ing indi­vid­ual assis­tance is dif­fi­cult, as pro­grams tend to focus on indi­vid­u­als who were repressed in the past year. This means that many of the jour­nal­ists who fled the coun­try in 2020–2021 are unable to access the sup­port they need, although those who fled the war in Ukraine have bet­ter chances.

    “There is a wor­ry that sup­port may decrease in the com­ing years, because the whole world has to sup­port Ukraine now, and we our­selves sup­port it. It is clear that some of the mon­ey has been redi­rect­ed to Ukraine because there is a big need there”, says Haret­s­ki. 

    Nas­tas­sia Rou­da, direc­tor of Nasha Niva, also points to this issue. She adds that pre­vi­ous­ly her out­let man­aged to devel­op a busi­ness mod­el to be inde­pen­dent from any­body [a mix of adver­tis­ing rev­enue and sub­scrip­tions], but now they have to rely on grants. “We have lost our ground and now we have the uncer­tain­ty”, admits Rou­da.

    Access to information and sources inside the country deteriorates, and officials pass restrictive laws

    Access to infor­ma­tion has dete­ri­o­rat­ed sig­nif­i­cant­ly for jour­nal­ists cov­er­ing Belarus, with offi­cials increas­ing­ly hid­ing offi­cial sta­tis­tics and declin­ing to com­ment on any­thing. Access to sources with­in the coun­try has also become more dif­fi­cult, as secu­ri­ty forces intim­i­date those who have been inter­ro­gat­ed and threat­en them with neg­a­tive con­se­quences if they share infor­ma­tion with the media. 

    Addi­tion­al­ly, new restric­tive laws have made it a crim­i­nal offence to share infor­ma­tion with out­lets deemed “extrem­ist organ­i­sa­tions,” which includes almost all inde­pen­dent media and oppo­si­tion ini­tia­tives. Vik­tar Kulin­ka, who sim­ply sent a pho­to of a Russ­ian mil­i­tary con­voy to the mon­i­tor­ing project “Belarus­ki Hajun”, has been sen­tenced to three years in prison. Even being a sub­scriber for such pub­li­ca­tions can be con­sid­ered an offence.

    Direc­tor of Nasha Niva shares a case of repres­sions in the Acad­e­my of Sci­ences, where 40 peo­ple were inter­ro­gat­ed, but jour­nal­ists found out about this only weeks lat­er. “This was a very seri­ous wake-up call. Just a year ago we couldn’t imag­ine such a delay,” says Rou­da. 

    Anas­tasiya Boi­ka, edi­tor of Mediazona.Belarus, a small out­let with a staff of less than a dozen, notes that peo­ple in Belarus are hes­i­tant to speak to jour­nal­ists even anony­mous­ly: “They just don’t want to have any kind of rela­tion­ship with jour­nal­ists, they delete cor­re­spon­dence.” 

    Boi­ka also points out that the prac­tice of clos­ing polit­i­cal­ly moti­vat­ed court hear­ings to the pub­lic has become more com­mon, with jour­nal­ists now sur­prised when a hear­ing is open. Nobody shares any details from hear­ing with the media, which makes it prac­ti­cal­ly impos­si­ble for jour­nal­ists to find out even what charges are being brought against indi­vid­u­als. 

    Offi­cials are about to pass a law that would allow Alexan­der Lukashen­ka to strip cit­i­zen­ship from those con­vict­ed under extrem­ist charges, as well as those found guilty of “caus­ing seri­ous harm to the inter­ests of Belarus” if they are out­side the coun­try. Anoth­er new law allows for peo­ple to be found guilty in a tri­al with­out their pres­ence. The first such tri­al, which began in Decem­ber, involves jour­nal­ist Dmit­ry Navosha, founder of major sports pub­lish­ers sports.ru and tribuna.by, and co-founder of the sol­i­dar­i­ty fund BYSOL.

    Journalists get burned out and leave the profession, and there is nowhere to find new ones

    Accord­ing to Barys Haret­s­ki, spokesper­son for the BAJ, requests for psy­cho­log­i­cal help are on the rise as jour­nal­ists strug­gle with the neg­a­tive con­di­tions they have been work­ing under for the past three years. 

    Nas­tas­sia Rou­da, direc­tor of Nasha Niva, also cites this issue, shar­ing that some of her jour­nal­ists left the out­let after get­ting burned out. Rou­da notes that the “mobil­i­sa­tion state” that jour­nal­ists have been liv­ing in for more than two years has tak­en a toll on their resources. The lack of plan­ning and the risks asso­ci­at­ed with work­ing for an “extrem­ist organ­i­sa­tion,” includ­ing the dan­ger of arrest when try­ing to come to Belarus or harm to fam­i­ly mem­bers, have also con­tributed to the chal­lenges faced by jour­nal­ists.

    “We don’t know what the future holds. And the ten­den­cy is such (it gets worse every year) that not every­one believes any­thing will get bet­ter in 2023,” acknowl­edges Rou­da.

    The short­age of young, trained jour­nal­ists is anoth­er con­cern, as there are almost no pro­grams to teach new writ­ers and few who are will­ing to take on the risks asso­ci­at­ed with the work. Anas­tasiya Boi­ka, edi­tor of Mediazona.Belarus, notes that find­ing peo­ple to fill lead­er­ship posi­tions has been par­tic­u­lar­ly dif­fi­cult, as many have been work­ing non-stop for the past two years and have had lit­tle oppor­tu­ni­ty to devel­op the nec­es­sary skills. Her out­let opened a vacan­cy for a sec­ond edi­tor in June, and found one only half a year lat­er.

    “It seems to me that in this whole sit­u­a­tion, it’s extreme­ly impor­tant not to for­get about peo­ple and to think about their moral state because, well, it’s like a night­mare. Imag­ine the lev­el of men­tal health of these peo­ple who have to write every day about the hor­rors hap­pen­ing in their coun­try, and in a neigh­bour­ing coun­try that’s at war. All of us, Belaru­sian jour­nal­ists, have to think about how to save our­selves. Maybe man­agers should some­times turn a blind eye to [met­rics] num­bers, maybe give peo­ple the free­dom to write some­thing dif­fer­ent, just to give them a space where they can relax,” says Anas­tasiya Boi­ka, edi­tor of Mediazona.Belarus.

    Some positive news: journalists stay strong

    Despite the chal­lenges, there are some pos­i­tive devel­op­ments in the media land­scape. Barys Haret­s­ki notes that many out­lets have grown and there are promis­ing new projects, such as the region­al Most­media out­let based in Białys­tok, Poland, close to Belarus, which focus­es on Belaru­sians “on both sides of the bor­der.” 

    Anas­tasiya Boi­ka also points to the grow­ing pop­u­lar­i­ty of the Belaru­sian lan­guage, with some media that were pre­vi­ous­ly Russ­ian-lan­guage becom­ing bilin­gual and the audi­ence increas­ing­ly using the nation­al lan­guage. The audi­ence from Belarus is also grow­ing, though it is dif­fi­cult to count due to an active use of VPNs.

    Nas­tas­sia Rou­da notes that out­lets like Nasha Niva have found new ways to con­nect with their audi­ence and invest in social media and new for­mats of con­tent. How­ev­er, over­all, she doesn’t see much pos­i­tiv­i­ty: “Jour­nal­ists are still behind bars, the tri­als con­tin­ue, we are wait­ing for the tri­al on TUT.by. We enter the new year with [spec­u­la­tions] that Belarus might enter the war. There is very lit­tle pos­i­tiv­i­ty in 2022.” 

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