Since the presidential election in August 2020, Belarusian media are facing some of the most severe crackdowns on the freedom of speech. Sanctions against independent publications range from arrests of journalists to website blocking or police raids on the offices. Though struggling to survive, most media keep operating. In this article, Fojo has gathered some of the examples on how publishers keep to their commitment to deliver quality news to their audience.
In 2020, six Belarusian newspapers were effectively denied the right to existence: the printing press companies refused to print their copies, while distribution agents stopped delivering them to the subscribers. According to the local media monitoring project Media IQ, most of the “blacklisted” newspapers were forced to move printing to the neighbouring counties, cut the number of copies and look for the new ways to bring the paper to the readers.
Iosif Seredich from “Narodna Volya” tells Media IQ that once the official distribution agency refused to work with this newspaper, readers volunteered to work as “newsboys”, printing copies at home and sharing them with others. And while definitely exceptionally brave, such initiatives are still not enough to provide for any sustainable existence. For many media outlets, print versions of their publication used to bring in the most profits. Recently intensified pressure through printing press and distribution companies has forced media to accelerate their digitalization efforts. Some focus more on social media now, others develop their websites and work with online monetization.
Another side of the new reality that many independent media outlets have to face are raids and searches, both at their offices and in their homes. Based on different accusations, police seizes equipment that editorial teams use to store information and produce media publications – like laptops, cameras, or USB-sticks. Still, even smaller local media with limited technical resources do not let these setbacks to stop their work. Oftentimes, the very media that is being searched is the first one to publish a news story about the police raid. According to the media managers that spoke to Media IQ, their staff members are always ready to log in from any available computer and resume publishing news.
There is a lot of courage and perseverance in the way journalists speak about the difficulties they are facing due to the searches. Yet, while the day-to-day work of the news teams can be re-arranged relatively easily, interferences in the work of independent media have a major impact on their long-term survival chances. “Our staff have started working remotely back in March 2020. So [the confiscations] had no major influence on our content. We were updating our newsfeeds even at the very moment when police were searching our office, – says Irina Levshina from BelaPAN. – One major setback that keeps affecting us is the loss of the accounting information and financial records that were stored on our computers. This makes financial reporting very difficult”.
With important business processes put on hold or rendered impossible, independent Belarusian media have two options. Either they change their policy and stop creating quality news in order to preserve financial sustainability, or risk closing down. For most, this was not really a situation of choice. “Our main goal is not to make profits, but to let more people get access to an independent news source, – says Oksana Kolb from “Novy Chas” newspaper in her interview to Media IQ. – People send us donations; advertising brings some profits in too. We will hold on to the last”.