Hromadske is beginning a project titled “Media Independence”. This series will explore how press independence works in post-Soviet space.
The expression “independent media” is often seen as an oxymoron in post-Soviet countries. Some countries, such as Russia, have strict state censorship, and almost all media is tightly controlled through links to businessmen and other power structures. In Ukraine, journalists often depend on oligarchic owners who use media to advance their political interests and to conduct information wars. In Azerbaijan, the press is generally forced to work incognito, under constant threat to life and freedom.
For the first article in this series, we decided to focus on Belarus.
According to the International Media Sustainability Index the situation surrounding freedom of speech in Belarus improved in 2016. The republic, as it is called in the report, moved from the category of countries where the media system is “unstable with anti-free press” to the category of “unstable with a mixed system”. However, the beginning of 2017 marked a step back. March 25’s “Freedom Day” saw mass detentions of journalists. Immediately after, personnel from the Security Services came to search the offices of "Belsat TV" and seized all their equipment.
At the beginning of April, Orsha resident Yulia Malysheva was fined 200 euros for streaming instances of animal cruelty in the city shelter. Law enforcers decided that such activity falls under the article “on manufacturing media products” (Part 2, Article 22.9 KoAP Belarus). “This is the first time that a blogger received such a punishment: she did not even think that this could be prohibited,” –said media expert Pavlyuk Bykovsky.
Fines for violating this article of the Administrative Code often reach 500–700 euros, a serious sum for journalists. As a rule, the “production of media” article accuses journalists who make material for foreign media without accreditation from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Belarus– such as “Radio Liberty” or the television channel “Belsat”.
In Belarus, all journalists are “counted”. They receive accreditation from the Ministry of Information or Foreign Affairs. Or, they simply work for state media.
“The entire media world in Belarus is fundamentally divided between state and non-state media. We have quite a strict divide. In Belarus there are two journalistic unions– one of them is mostly state journalists and the other– non-state media,” says "TUT.BY" political analyst Artem Shraibman.
The first Belarusian non-state media was born at the turn of the 1990s, remembers founder of “Press-Club Belarus” Yulia Slutskaya. They were founded by caring and active journalists from the state publishing house, who left their “cozy spots” and created new media from nothing. Their development was rapid. For example, the newspaper "Svobodnye Novosti”, was created by a team that left the state newspaper "Zvyazda" and reached a circulation of 100 thousand copies by 2006.
However, with the arrival of Aleksandr Lukashenko the situation changed, beginning with the repression of the same independent media that helped him come to power. “They need to be weakened, so they won’t succeed the second time. Printing and distributing independent media became much more expensive than state-media”, says Slutskaya. According to experts, the government began selectively using financial mechanisms to impact unwanted publications. Independent publications were excluded from the system of retail subscription and distribution. In particular, this happened to one of the most popular socio-political newspapers, "Narodnaya Volya". For almost 3 years, from 2005 to 2008, the newspaper was distributed through the efforts of enthusiasts. Lawsuits began: the largest–amounting to 500 thousand dollars–was filed by the head of Nationwide Television Grigory Kisel against "Komsomolskaya Pravda".
From 1997 to 2002 the newspapers “Svaboda”, “Naviny”, “Imya”, “Pagonya, “Nasha Svaboda” were closed. The release of some other newspapers, such “Belorusskaya Delovaya Gazeta” or Predprinimatel’skaya Gazeta” were suspended for three months at the request of the Ministry for Information.
In 2015, ahead of presidential elections, amendments came into effect allowing the blocking of internet resources (including international ones) in pre-trial order.
Now, the law prescribes mechanisms that enable the elimination of any means of mass information, explains Shraibman.
Non-state media exists primarily on the internet, which became a real island of free speech. On especially popular sites, particularly independent media such as "TUT.BY", "Naviny.by" and “Charter 97”. “On the internet state-media has an absolutely small share of readers. From the first 15 most popular news sites 12-13 will be non-state. Here we dominate, but in the remaining segments we are almost gone”, says Shraibman.
In Belarus there is no non-state television channels and non-state political radio in the FM-range, experts say. Independent media is often broadcast from abroad–in Poland there are editorial offices for the television channel “Belsat”, “Euroradio” and radio “Ratsiya”. In Belarus there is a strong “Radio Liberty” bureau. There is also an independent agent Belapan.
The printed press is freer, especially at the local level. “There is about a dozen non-state political papers, which can allow themselves to criticize power. Of them 3-4 are located in Minsk, and the remainder are in the provinces,” explains Shraibman. At this time there is the independent newspaper “Nasha Niva”, created at the beginning of the twentieth century in Vilnius. It used to be a intellectual literary publication, but now it is socio-political. “Narodnaya Volya” whose editor in chief recently met with President Lukashenko is also being published.
It isn’t possible to be a free artist in Belarus and the status of freelancers is not fixed by law–the Belarusian authorities do not consider these people journalists and can take repressive measures against them, as was the case during the protests on March 25, explains “Euroradio” editor-in-chief Victor Malishevsky.
Sometimes journalists are not even able to start their work because the authorities take action against them ahead of time, explains media expert Pavlyuk Bykovsky: “There was a curious incident in the city of Orsha, a small town in the Vitebsk region not far from Minsk. Journalists were traveling by train to attend a demonstration there and were detained at the railway station. Some journalists were held at the railway station’s cafe for the duration of the rally, while others were held at the police department”.
Journalists in Belarus also face problems when submitting requests for information to state agencies. According to the law, the authorities can respond to these requests within a month. The same law applies to ordinary citizens. This significantly complicates journalists’ work, for example, if they need urgent information about detainees for the news. However, some press services are still in contact with journalists. “There are press services that will quickly give all the requested information. But many state agencies don’t want to do this efficiently, and they have the right not to,” Bykovsky underscores.
While a list of forbidden topics does not exist, this also means that everything is left up to chance.
The economic provisions for many independent media outlets in Belarus are very precarious. “The majority of independent media lives off support from grants. Some partially from advertizing. We [TUT.BY–ed.] are entirely supported by advertizing, but this is an exception,” explains Shraibman, “sometimes niche media relies on crowdfunding”. The system is over regulated by legislation, experts say. For example, in order to host a giveaway with an audience competing for sponsor’s prizes, the media must obtain registration from the Ministry of Trade. As a result, the media is not considered an object for investment, explains Slutskaya.
That being said, cases of pressure being put on the media are not as common as one might think. “When there are protests there is a crackdown on the media.This always happens in cycles, after a period of pressure comes a thaw,” explains Shraibman.
“The authorities are really afraid of the possibility of what happened to Ukraine happening to Belarus,” Malishevsky argues, “They are very afraid of the 'Russian world'. The 'Russian world' enjoys this, they pull the strings slowly and the authorities calm down because everything seems to be okay. The authorities are afraid when Russian media and forums write bad things about Belarus, resembling what they wrote about Ukraine: that the Belarusian language is not a language, that it isn’t a separate country but rather part of the “Russian world” and so forth.”
Independent Belarusian media specifically opposes Russian propaganda. Media analysts will admit and even argue that for this reason it is logical for the state to support such media, but for some reason, common sense doesn’t seem to apply here. Therefore, none of the experts Hromadske interviewed dare to predict the fate of independent media in Belarus.
/ Text by Natalya Tikhonova
/Translated by Eilish Hart