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

21.12.2022 Source: The Fix: Hleb Liapeika

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.”