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

04.10.2022 Source: The Fix: Hleb Liapeika

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.”