After two years of persecution in Belarus, endangered journalists adapt to survive
In the two years since Alexander Lukashenko’s disputed reelection in August 2020, Belarusian journalists have had to adapt the way they work in order to avoid being silenced. To find out more, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) interviewed some of those who fled abroad.
“Independent journalists are resisting in Belarus, despite Alexander Lukashenko’s every effort to break them for the past two years,” said Jeanne Cavelier, the head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk. “We urge the international community to provide concrete support for their resistance and for their fight alongside independent Ukrainian and Russian media outlets for truthful news and information.”
In the radical crackdown launched two years ago, after the disputed presidential election on 9 August 2020, Belarusian journalists have been subjected to around 500 arrests, as well as fines, censorship, threats, searches, prison sentences, mistreatment, torture and reprisals against loved ones.
How could they keep providing news and information in this climate of terror, in which the security forces hunt down every independent voice? To avoid joining the 32 journalists in prison (see RSF’s log here), most journalists in Belarus are working clandestinely and writing anonymously. Or they are censoring themselves to avoid any provocation or criticism of the government that could be regarded as “extremist.” And others have left the country.
Since the disputed election in 2020, the Belarusian authorities have changed many laws to give a legal veneer to their attacks on press freedom, above all by means of a series of amendments in May 2021. The most popular news site Tut.by was deprived of its media status, censored, searched and subjected to criminal proceedings, before being labelled “extremist” and finally subjected to a de facto banning, like most other independent media. Only the state-owned media outlet BTRC continues to operate normally by broadcasting the regime's propaganda.
Some journalists have seen no other solution but to flee the country. The Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ), RSF’s partner, estimates that around 400 journalists have left, mostly to neighbouring Poland, Ukraine and Lithuania. But it is difficult for those who have left to directly cover what is happening on the ground in Belarus. So, they work closely with colleagues still in Belarus, and with the help of readers who send photos, videos and information. The crackdown has encouraged the rise of citizen and participative journalism. Their main tool is the encrypted messaging app Telegram.
RSF questioned some of them in the course of preparing a report produced by its Swedish section.
“You can take a photo and send it, and Telegram deletes all the metadata,” said Zmicier Mickiewicz, a Warsaw-based journalist working for Belsat TV, a TV channel run by Belarusian journalists in Poland. “Even if the police take your phone, it is impossible for them to find out who sent the photo.” Digital security has become a major issue for media outlets. They invest in training for their journalists and often provide their readers with advice about digital security tools.
Seven years in prison for subscribing to a Telegram channel
There are risks to reading as well as providing news. A reader can be sentenced to up to seven years in prison just for subscribing to the Telegram channel of a media outlet that the authorities have identified as “extremist” – a label that applies to almost all independent media. Most news about Belarus is now to be found on Telegram as the authorities have blocked most websites.
But this doesn’t seem to discourage the public. The Belarusian special forces managed to hack into the Telegram channel of Radio Svaboda (an offshoot of the US broadcaster Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty) for about ten minutes and to broadcast a message threatening to punish its subscribers and claiming to have obtained their names.
“When we regained control of the account, we had lost less than five percent of our audience,” said Aliaksandra Dynko, a journalist who initially fled to Kyiv and then fled a second time after the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Fake news created by security services
To maintain the public’s trust and reliable media coverage of Belarus, exile journalists must be especially careful about verifying the facts they report, especially as the security services try to discredit independent media by creating false information for them to report. “We take training to improve our fact-checking skills and we use many different tools,” Dynko said, citing image metadata as an example.
Distance is a limitation that forces them to ignore stories that cannot be verified, especially those at a very local level, where it is difficult to find several sources. “People are now afraid to talk to independent media,” said Natalia Lubneuskaya, a reporter for one of the oldest media in the country, Nasha Niva, who was injured by a gunshot fired by the police in August 2020. “They fear being harmed by any attention being brought on them. So, we have fewer stories with a personal basis.”
Some exile journalists feel “deprived of context” or even isolated. This is “the biggest problem,” said Iryna Arakhouskaya, a freelance journalist who fled to Poland. She said: “Not being able to interact and meet the people who live in your own country, not being able to soak up the atmosphere, what's going on, what people are talking about – it creates a kind of artificial situation in which you are alienated from reality.”
Others complain about the lack of direct communication with their colleagues, as most of those working for media outlets are physically dispersed.
Still at the heart of the battle, despite exile
Almost all of them have to coexist with physical and psychological trauma. “We still dream of demonstrations, beatings, the police... we are still at the heart of the fight,” said Anton Trafimovich, a freelance journalist now based in Warsaw. “That's what makes things so difficult.”
“Even in exile, some independent journalists feel they have to censor themselves, mainly because they fear endangering their families in Belarus,” said Siri Hill, a member of RSF Sweden’s board and the report’s author. “The journalists I interviewed said the authorities sometimes arrest journalists’ parents or raid their apartments because of their children’s work. This is why many journalists have chosen not to use their real name or just use their initials when covering stories that could be considered sensitive or contain any criticism of Lukashenko or the authorities in general.”
Despite exile, the fear of reprisals against relatives still in Belarus or the fear of being kidnapped and taken back to Belarus by force results in some journalists working anonymously, censoring themselves or even abandoning journalism altogether.
“After the emergency forced landing of the blogger Raman Pratasevich’s plane in Belarus, we all became much more careful about our personal security,” said Ruslan Kulevich, a journalist with the Hrodna.life local news site who was hospitalised in August 2020 after being beaten in detention. “We don’t reveal where we live and that kind of thing. It’s easy for anyone to come here by car, kidnap a person, put them in the car’s trunk and leave the country without anyone noticing.”
Kulevich now lives in Poland, where he has helped to set up a new media outlet called Most. But for some journalists, exile means the end of their career, especially photographers and photojournalists such as Vadim Zamirovski, who fled to Ukraine and then Lithuania.
All of these challenges compound the many obstacles associated with relocating in a new country, including administrative obstacles, the cost of living and learning a new language. To assist journalists in this situation and help them resume their journalism as soon as possible RSF and several partners launched a European fund for exile journalists, called the JX Fund, last April.
RSF also helps websites that are blocked in Belarus – such as Zerkalo.io (the former TUT.by), Belarus’s most popular online media – to circumvent this form of censorship and reach their public. RSF does this by using its Operation Collateral Freedom to create “mirror” sites, exact copies hosted on international servers that are hard for the government to block.
Ruled since 1994 by Lukashenko, who has managed to be reelected in the first round every five years since then, Belarus is ranked 153rd out of 180 countries in RSF's 2022 World Press Freedom Index.