Being an independent journalist in Belarus has always been a challenge. In recent years, news reports have been censored by government officials, reporters and editors have been arrested, physically attacked, threatened, expelled and one reporter disappeared and is believed dead.
Heading into the pivotal March 2006 election, in which president Aleksandr Lukashenko sought a third term, the situation for journalists grew even more grave. Fearful of another "color revolution," as happened in Ukraine and Georgia, government officials blocked any information (other than what they provided) from reaching the public. The state-owned newspaper distribution company, Belposhta, no longer allowed subscriptions to or the distribution of privately owned, independent newspapers. Another state monopoly, Belsayuzdruk, refused to have any of these publications sold at the kiosks it controlled.
Since January 2006, 60 journalists were detained (28 before the elections, 36 on Election Day and afterwards, and three were detained twice). Of them, 34 were sentenced to imprisonment, nine were beaten up. Though our nation’s "denim revolution" failed, this was not because of any lack of courage and determination by journalists. Rather, this political movement failed because the Belarus government shut down newspapers and succeeded in suppressing information about the opposition’s ideas and candidates, a tactic neither the government in the Ukraine nor Georgia had used.
Turning to the Web
Faced with the inability to circulate their newspapers, Belarusian journalists turned to their Web sites in the hope of maintaining the flow of news — and the momentum toward democracy. This effort, which ultimately failed, demonstrated an important lesson for journalists throughout the world: Online is not yet a worthy substitute for newspapers.
Access to news is critical. When news is shared only online, people who don’t have the ability to get to the information will be left out and therefore be uninvolved. In Belarus, as in most parts of the world, the Internet is still populated primarily by the young and educated. Data from the Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies tells us that nearly one-quarter — some 23-24 percent — of Belarusians use the Internet; only half of these people do so on a regular basis. And pre-election polls indicated that the majority of those who support Lukashenko are pensioners and people who live in villages or small towns — a group often far removed from modern technology. The vast majority of Internet users are based in Minsk, are under the age of 30, and have slow connections.
Being a reporter in the Belarus independent press guarantees neither money nor fame; instead it brings those who do it real problems and dangers. Despite these dangers, there are still hundreds who choose to keep reporting news during this difficult time. As Andrei Dynko, the editor of Nasha Niva, who was arrested and jailed for several days in March, observed about his newspaper’s working conditions: "We have to ignore many laws — the 24-day annual paid leaves, maternity or sick leaves, maximum 40 hours of work per week, sanitary norms in the office, nightly shifts. I’m not even mentioning repressive regulations. We are distributing a newspaper which is banned from being subscribed to or sold in newsstands. Some women come to work with month-old babies to preserve the oldest Belarusian newspaper, the only one left in the country, published exclusively in the Belarusian language."
As Lukashenko’s dictatorship in Belarus hardens after the harshest and most fraudulent electoral campaign in its history, being a journalist in Belarus demands real courage, sometimes heroism. Survival of the independent press is at stake, as government officials continue their crackdown on news coverage and its distribution and newspapers reach smaller and smaller audiences.
The question journalists in Belarus confront is how to keep independent journalism alive. As reporters and editors and bloggers in Western democracies explore ways to transition news reporting from print to online, in Belarus this shift is happening, but not naturally or thoughtfully, as it should. The shift in Belarus is happening out of desperation. And even with limited public access to Web sites, the government continues to harass journalists as they shift to publishing online. Yet journalists continue to use whatever means they can to get their words out and have their voices heard, even though many of these strategies require personal courage.
Under Belarus’s media law, the court can ban a newspaper after two official warnings are given. One of the first closed publications was Pahonia, a major regional newspaper from Grodno, which criticized the government in overt ways. After its closure, Pahonia went to an online edition in an attempt to maintain its mission of providing the public censor-free news. But its problems did not stop. Editors Nikolai Markevich and Pavel Mozheiko were arrested and sentenced to a year and a half of "corrective labor" on charges of libeling Lukashenko in an online article.
Nasha Niva, a major intellectual publication, struggles to preserve its print version. But to accommodate its circumstances and its online possibilities, the publication switched from being a broadsheet to a bulletin-like format. The reason: Nasha Niva can be downloaded in a PDF-version, then printed and distributed by its readers to others who live nearby. Now authorities are attempting to ban the newspaper by closing its Minsk office and depriving Nasha Niva of its legal address. If this happens, Nasha Niva will lose its right to be published within Belarus and would, most likely, move totally online.
Volnaye Hlybokaye and Vitebski Kurier, both newspapers, allow third-party Web sites, Sumiezza and Vitebsk.by, to re-post their articles online. And many well-respected news organizations provided RSS feeds to Weblogs on Election Day so that people could still have access to information, even if the publications’ Web sites were blocked or hacked. Indeed, Election Day did turn into an online battle between Web administrators and hackers, with the former working to keep their sites updated and available, while the latter attacked them to try to disrupt the flow (and succeeded with some sites).
After the election, direct attacks on the Internet sites stopped, and Web sites containing the work of independent journalists continue to be accessible to those with the computer and wired connections to get to them. And with all of the actions against newspapers, independent print journalism could not be revived; the remaining few newspapers have had to move online as their only hope for survival. Even if all the newspapers fail, there will still be underground printouts, bulletins and Web sites that will deliver news to Belarusians.
Are these ways of distributing news able to substitute for the traditional print media?
In the opinion of many observers, not yet.
Andrei Khrapavitski is a graduate student at the University of North Carolina School of Journalism, where he studies as a Muskie Fellow while researching the role of independent media in Belarus, Ukraine and Georgia. In Belarus he worked as a deputy editor at Volnaye Hlybokaye, founded an independent youth publication, Kanspekt, and worked in the network of resource centers fostering new media initiatives.