Belarus, a country which lies between Ukraine, Russia, Poland and the Baltic states, has been known for decades as “the last dictatorship in Europe”. Reporters Without Borders describes it as “Europe’s most dangerous country for journalists until Russia’s invasion of Ukraine”. With a total population of approximately 9.5 million people and an internet penetration rate of 85%, the country has been underachieving on its economic potential. Its GDP per capita is less than a third of the World Bank’s average for countries of Europe and Central Asia.
in the Directory
Belarus’s challenges have only been exacerbated in the aftermath of mass protests in 2020. In August 2020, Belarusians rallied across the country after Aleksander Lukashenko, who has ruled the country since 1994, claimed an election victory widely seen as fraudulent. Police brutally crushed largely peaceful protests against what was seen as a sham election.
Particularly hard-hit was the media community. Since 2020, the Belarusian Association of Journalists has recorded over 500 detentions of journalists in relation to their professional activities. As of October 2022, 32 media workers remain in prison.
Thirty-three media websites are blocked, 12 newspapers are banned and seven media organisations have been pronounced “extremist” – which means that consuming their content can lead to prosecution, and their staff face criminal charges.
One of the publications on the “extremist” list is what was formerly the country’s biggest independent website, Tut.by. Before the repressions began, it had a reach of 65% of the Belarusian population. But in May 2021, the media outlet was forced to stop all operations. Most of its managers are in prison and its staff are in exile, setting up a new digital media outlet.
The choice to relocate away from Belarus has become a default for most independent media outlets. In fact, only one independent general news website with a national reach remains in-country, but its leaders declined to be interviewed for Project Oasis.
Independent media organisations that have relocated their staff outside Belarus are invariably blocked in-country. While many Belarusians use VPNs (virtual private networks) to access independent news, the most important channels of distribution have become social media, particularly Telegram and YouTube. Other “censorship-proof” forms of distribution such as, for instance, podcasts and newsletters, have been slow to take off in Belarus. This is mostly because of market inertia; many Belarusians are not used to these formats, and exiled media outlets struggle to change this.
Market structure and dominance
Research into audience behaviour shows that, in the aftermath of the 2020 protests, many Belarusians began to exhibit news fatigue and turn away from independent media. This has led to a decline in reach and engagement for many non-governmental media outlets. The trend changed somewhat after Russia began its war in Ukraine but, longer term, independent media outlets have struggled to attain the audiences they had before relocating away from Belarus.
There is a lack of independent, trustworthy research into how Belarusians consume state media. Among independent media, however, online outlets are firmly in the lead. Non-state affiliated print outlets are mostly banned from distributing their content. Euroradio, the country’s only independent news radio station, has been pronounced “extremist” and banned, as has Belsat, a Poland-based satellite TV channel supported by a range of Western donors.
Eleven profiles of digital native media organisations from Belarus are included in the directory. These range from lifestyle websites, to traditional news websites, to Telegram-only media outlets. All are struggling to develop sustainable, independent funding streams.
Of the outlets polled, seven said grants were their primary source of revenue, and two declined to discuss their revenue streams for security reasons. Only one outlet, probusiness.io, the niche business news website which still operates from inside Belarus, claimed to be completely self-sufficient. Belarusian authorities appear to be willing to turn a blind eye to it, because of the highly specialised nature of its coverage.
Belarusian media leaders share a concern over their industry’s long-term sustainability. They appreciate that donor funding can only be a temporary solution, but developing other sources of funding for media outlets which are not allowed to operate openly remains a major problem. Many news outlets are experimenting with reader/user support; almost all continue to attempt to sell advertising, but most media leaders interviewed for this project said these sources of revenue were secondary.
Experimentation with platforms is tricky and expensive for media outlets, which often struggle to pay their journalists a living wage and meet their newsrooms’ most basic needs. Despite these challenges, most independent Belarusian journalists remain highly motivated. Editors interviewed for this project display a clear vision of their newsrooms’ role, in a society where free speech is effectively barred and state propaganda omnipresent.
“Our job is to make sure lies do not become accepted as the truth,” says one of them, editor-in-chief of a leading independent media organisation. Another adds: “When we think about the risks people take to read our content, it makes us really appreciate our responsibility to the public.” Both editors declined to provide their names for safety reasons.
The long-term survival of independent media outlets in Belarus will depend on continued donor support. Absent a regime change, or at least a significant de-escalation, the sector will continue to face all but insurmountable problems in generating sufficient independent revenue from sustainable sources. Exiled media outlets are aware that they need to develop new ways of reaching their audiences, so it is reasonable to expect a proliferation of new platforms and formats. Of particular interest is TikTok, where early Belarusian adopters are already reaching tens of thousands of people. Monetising these platforms can be feasible – but not without ongoing support, consultancy and training from the international media development community.
Last updated: January 2023