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  • Top Belarusian and Ukrainian media use the Russian language a lot – can they abandon it?

    Even amidst Russia’s invasion, the Russian language is difficult to abandon for Ukrainian media – and more so for Belarusian outlets

    Russia’s war in Ukraine and the Kremlin’s weapon­i­sa­tion of the Russ­ian lan­guage exposed risks that come with the spread of Russ­ian in neigh­bour­ing coun­tries more clear­ly than before. Using the nation­al lan­guage is one of the ways to defend the infor­ma­tion space. How­ev­er, in a high­ly Rus­si­fied coun­try jour­nal­ists are forced to use the Russ­ian lan­guage to have access to a big­ger audi­ence. Here’s how top news out­lets in the two coun­tries approach lan­guages of cov­er­age.

    How widespread Russian is in Ukraine and Belarus

    Since 2014, when a demo­c­ra­t­ic rev­o­lu­tion over­threw the pro-Russ­ian gov­ern­ment, Ukraine has been active­ly pro­mot­ing the usage of its nation­al lan­guage – both through laws and through the civ­il soci­ety. Things were slow­ly chang­ing, and then changes rapid­ly accel­er­at­ed with Russia’s open inva­sion in 2022. Accord­ing to polls, 36% of Ukraini­ans were using the Russ­ian lan­guage at home a year before the war broke out, with num­bers in the South and the East being almost twice as high. After half a year of the full-scale war, this num­ber fell to just 13%. More than half of peo­ple in pre­vi­ous­ly major­i­ty-Russ­ian-speak­ing regions now con­sid­er them­selves bilin­gual. 

    In Belarus, by con­trast, the over­whelm­ing major­i­ty of the pop­u­la­tion speaks the Russ­ian lan­guage, with West­ern catholic regions slight­ly more Belaru­sian speak­ing. The offi­cial cen­sus claims that a quar­ter of the pop­u­la­tion named Belaru­sian as their home lan­guage, with the high­est num­ber in the Hrod­na region – 38%. (How­ev­er, sus­pi­cious dis­crep­an­cies in the respons­es call into ques­tion the accu­ra­cy of the data. And with inde­pen­dent soci­ol­o­gy being prac­ti­cal­ly banned, it’s impos­si­ble to get the real num­bers).

    Accord­ing to offi­cial sta­tis­tics, only a tenth of school pupils study in Belaru­sian, and there is not a sin­gle uni­ver­si­ty in the coun­try with edu­ca­tion entire­ly in the nation­al lan­guage. In 2021, author­i­ties liq­ui­dat­ed hun­dreds of civ­il soci­ety organ­i­sa­tions, includ­ing those work­ing on pro­mot­ing the Belaru­sian lan­guage: Union of Belaru­sian writ­ers, PEN Belarus and oth­ers. State media are ful­ly Rus­si­fied, with just a few out­lets in Belaru­sian.

    What languages are preferred by news media

    Out of the 16 largest inde­pen­dent Belaru­sian media, four use only the Belaru­sian lan­guage, and three more use it as their pri­ma­ry lan­guage with a trans­la­tion option. Oth­er out­lets are Russ­ian-lan­guage, though they reg­u­lar­ly pub­lish some arti­cles in Belaru­sian. For some pub­li­ca­tions, pub­lish­ing in Belaru­sian accel­er­at­ed after the Russ­ian inva­sion, with out­lets like Mediazona.Belarus, a branch of the Russ­ian out­let Medi­a­zona, hav­ing most of the arti­cles in both lan­guages.

    Their dis­tri­b­u­tion process faces many dif­fi­cul­ties: for one, YouTube doesn’t sup­port pro­mot­ing videos with a title in Belaru­sian, as oppo­si­tion lead­ers point out. More impor­tant­ly, the author­i­ties blocked all the inde­pen­dent media after mas­sive protests of 2020, which affects rank­ing in the Google search. Peo­ple could be arrest­ed even for being a sub­scriber of these out­lets in social media. 

    In Ukraine, the pic­ture is more pleas­ant for the tit­u­lar lan­guage with a scat­ter­ing of the media in Ukrain­ian. Out of 16 biggest media out­lets, only one doesn’t have a Ukrain­ian ver­sion. Almost all of them use both lan­guages equal­ly, though there are a few excep­tions. 

    Babel, the out­let with about 1.5 mil­lion unique month­ly vis­i­tors, decid­ed to aban­don its Russ­ian-lan­guage ver­sion of the web­site in April this year, even though about 30% of its read­ers used this lan­guage. Instead, they launched an Eng­lish-lan­guage ver­sion. (Ukraine doesn’t have a lot of Eng­lish speak­ers, but Russia’s inva­sion has attract­ed atten­tion to the coun­try from across the world, spark­ing an inter­est in media cov­er­age).

    Yevhen Spirin, the edi­tor-in-chief of Babel, tells The Fix that now they have 19% of the audi­ence using the Eng­lish ver­sion in addi­tion to those who switched to the Ukrain­ian ver­sion. “We had a core that read us, and it has stayed. So we didn’t lose any­thing”, Spirin says.

    What’s inter­est­ing, he points out, is that 10–15% of the audi­ence reads Babel from Rus­sia and even from its far east regions. Spirin assumes it could par­tial­ly be Ukraini­ans evac­u­at­ed or deport­ed from the occu­pied ter­ri­to­ries. 

    Asked if the media should pro­mote nation­al lan­guage and be an exam­ple, Spirin replied with­out think­ing: “Of course, they should. Why do peo­ple need Russ­ian? <…> When a nation has no lan­guage, there is no nation.” 

    How top media from Belarus and Ukraine deal with the language situation

    How­ev­er,  when we scale up to the biggest news out­lets in both coun­tries, they can­not afford to aban­don the Russ­ian ver­sion alto­geth­er. At the same time, there is a con­sid­er­able dif­fer­ence between the two coun­tries in terms of which lan­guage is the default one.

    Zerka­lo, the largest inde­pen­dent out­let in Belarus, is pub­lished almost entire­ly in Russ­ian. Rare arti­cles have an option to read in Belaru­sian, and some posts on social media are writ­ten in this lan­guage. 

    As the Zerka­lo team explains in the con­ver­sa­tion with The Fix, most read­ers speak Russ­ian and want to receive infor­ma­tion in this lan­guage. “It is essen­tial for them to have their Belaru­sian source of the news, which will sat­is­fy their needs,” tells the team. (Names of Zerka­lo’s team mem­bers aren’t dis­closed pub­licly for secu­ri­ty rea­sons).

    How­ev­er, if the inter­vie­wee speaks Belaru­sian with a jour­nal­ist, their words are not trans­lat­ed into Russ­ian. Addi­tion­al­ly, Zerka­lo is now look­ing for a trans­la­tor to increase the num­ber of texts in Belaru­sian – with lon­greads as the pri­or­i­ty. So far, the met­rics of the Belaru­sian-lan­guage arti­cles are sig­nif­i­cant­ly worse than those in Russ­ian, though Zerka­lo didn’t share spe­cif­ic num­bers. 

    The team also believes that there are enough media with Belaru­sian as the pri­ma­ry lan­guage: “If one day all out­lets start writ­ing only in Belaru­sian, not all Russ­ian-speak­ing cit­i­zens will con­tin­ue read­ing them. Peo­ple will have to choose either Russ­ian-speak­ing Belaru­sian media with­out pol­i­tics (so-called “nor­malised” media), Belaru­sian state media, or Russ­ian media.

    It seems that nei­ther of these options will ben­e­fit Belarus in the long run.”

    Ukrain­ian most promi­nent media organ­i­sa­tion – Ukrayin­s­ka Prav­da (UP) – has ver­sions in three lan­guages. How­ev­er, the Ukrain­ian ver­sion is the main one, and all the con­tent is trans­lat­ed into Russ­ian, explains exec­u­tive direc­tor of the out­let Andrey Bobo­rykin in a con­ver­sa­tion with The Fix. He shares that 48% of the audi­ence reads UP in Russ­ian, which is, in absolute terms, sev­en mil­lion unique users and 90 mil­lion views in the last 30 days. 

    Bobo­rykin is con­fi­dent that if the out­let aban­doned the Russ­ian lan­guage ver­sion, a sig­nif­i­cant share of the audi­ence would go to oth­er news web­sites in this lan­guage. “To aban­don the Russ­ian lan­guage pain­less­ly, per­haps all the major pub­lish­ers should aban­don it simul­ta­ne­ous­ly. Oth­er­wise, if one does not stop pub­lish­ing [in Russ­ian], it will be the win­ner. No one is pre­pared to give up that share of users, and there is a lot to lose”, Andrey Bobo­rykin says. 

    All the social media of the out­let are in Ukrain­ian. A big part of the Russ­ian-lan­guage audi­ence comes from Google search and Dis­cov­er, where the links lead to the Russ­ian lan­guage ver­sion by default. Bobo­rykin points out that Ukrain­ian-lan­guage read­ers and Russ­ian-lan­guage read­ers have near­ly iden­ti­cal media con­sump­tion.

    UP’s exec­u­tive direc­tor also explains that in pub­lic dis­cus­sion, there are two opin­ions on reduc­ing the usage of the Russ­ian lan­guage. The first one, he says, pro­pos­es to aban­don the Russ­ian ver­sion alto­geth­er, leav­ing the read­ers with­out a choice. The sec­ond one is to have the Ukrain­ian lan­guage by default and an option to see the trans­la­tion into Russ­ian. And this option, says Andrey Bobo­rykin, is more pop­u­lar among the media: “There is a pro­por­tion of users whose news needs have to be met. And if UP does not meet them, some­one else will do it. But we want to pro­vide this news deliv­ery ser­vice.”


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