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Hard Times: Belarusian Media Abroad Say They Lack Money For Their 'Mission'

"No moneymaking plans work once you've been declared an extremist," said Paval Svyardlou, editor in chief of Euroradio, a broadcaster now based in Warsaw.
"No moneymaking plans work once you've been declared an extremist," said Paval Svyardlou, editor in chief of Euroradio, a broadcaster now based in Warsaw.

They left Belarus to work in freedom as journalists. They see their work as part of the campaign for democracy in their homeland. But now, more than three years into the media crackdowns that followed massive protests over the deeply disputed 2020 election, independent Belarusian journalists abroad say they are struggling to survive financially.

Belarusian journalists who were forced out or left, and the nongovernmental Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAZh), detailed problems ranging from the Belarusian government's designation of critical media as "extremists" to heightened competition for grants and "some" international donors' tendency to confuse Belarusian and Russian expatriate media.

Thirty percent of 108 expatriate Belarusians and Russians surveyed by Justice for Journalists (JFJ), a British nonprofit that tracks attacks against journalists, said that they had left journalism after migrating abroad, the organization reported in November 2023.

"The main problem is that we can't work as media, as a business. That's the key story," Khvedar Pavlyuchenko, editor in chief of the independent Belarusian news portal, told Current Time, the Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA. "In Belarus, we used to have that possibility -- we earned money from advertising and existed on advertising. Now, many Belarusian media outlets have been declared 'extremist.'"

There are almost no independent media outlets still based inside Belarus, which ranks 157th out of 180 countries for press freedom, according to the international media-rights organization Reporters Without Borders. The state often applies the term "extremists" to media outlets, civil-rights groups, or anyone who espouses critical views of the August 2020 presidential election, in which long-ruling Alyaksandr Lukashenka claimed a landslide victory despite widespread evidence of fraud.

Currently, about 3,400 people are on Belarus's list of "extremists." The Belarusian Information Ministry has labeled both Current Time and RFE/RL's Belarus Service "extremist" -- a categorization that RFE/RL rejects as groundless.

Advertising on an "extremist" outlet, subscribing to it, commenting on its work, or cooperating with it can lead to administrative fines and prison terms. Many Belarusians use a virtual private network (VPN) to access these banned sites or focus instead on the outlets' social-media accounts and messaging apps, Washington-based Freedom House wrote in its 2023 Freedom On The Net report.

But that interest does not necessarily attract advertisers.

"No moneymaking plans work once you've been declared an extremist," said Paval Svyardlou, editor in chief of Euroradio, a broadcaster now based in Warsaw. "Not a single [Belarusian] advertiser will risk his or her business for the sake of advertising with us and supporting independent media. When people are put in prison for five years for a $20 donation, it's hard to make money."

On January 30, Belarusian photojournalist Alyaksandr Zyankou received a three-year sentence for collaborating with a website deemed "extremist."

Belarus's list of media "extremists" could soon expand still further: Belarusian Ambassador Dzmitry Kruti said on February 6 that Belarus and Russia were working on merging their lists of "extremists" as part of a political union between the two states, RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported.

If implemented, such a merged list could mean that the U.S.-based social-media giant Meta, which owns Facebook, WhatsApp, and Instagram and is labeled "extremist" in Russia, could face restrictions in Belarus, too, though the implications for users is still unclear, Aleh Aheyev, a lawyer for the BAZh, which Minsk has also labeled "extremist," told RFE/RL's Belarus Service.

With the "extremist" label scaring off advertisers, independent Belarusian media abroad, like their Russian counterparts and outlets within Ukraine, rely heavily on grants from international governmental, civil-society, and media-development donors.

But Russia's February 24, 2022, full-scale invasion of Ukraine changed the dynamics of that revenue source as well, BAZh Deputy Chairman Barys Haretski says. Independent Belarusian journalists who migrated abroad since 2020 -- primarily to neighboring Lithuania and Poland -- now face competition from expatriate Ukrainian and Russian journalists who fled the war or, in Russia's case, extreme strictures on media liberties.

Part of that competition, Haretski added in an article published on the BAZh website, also stems from "some" international donors mistakenly equating Belarusian and Russian independent media and the sizes of their respective home audiences.

EU governments have provided self-exiled Belarusian journalists with simplified visa procedures, free office space, and other benefits, but Haretski predicts that smaller Belarusian outlets will not be able to weather the financial crisis. Several outlets are on the verge of closure, he claims, without elaboration.

"It's very important to preserve the connection with a Belarusian audience," he added. "So that the audience doesn't fall into the hands of Russian propaganda and Belarusian propaganda."

On January 24, Lukashenka and Russian President Vladimir Putin signed an agreement on a long-standing plan to create a media holding organization for use in "the information war with the West." Russian Minister for Digital Development, Communications, and Mass Media Maksut Shadayev said that the holding would include two weekly newspapers, a weekly magazine, and a TV channel.

At a November 2023 workshop, independent Belarusian journalists called for European governments and international organizations to use "Internet algorithms that would distinguish between Russo-Belarusian propaganda content and that created by bona fide independent media."

In line with that thinking, Vera Jourova, a vice president of the European Commission, the EU's executive branch, told the Financial Times in a January 7 interview that she had asked Google and Meta to do more to promote independent Belarusian media. The response was inconclusive.

In the meantime, the editorial offices of Euroradio and say they still have plans for new projects, even if they have to cut costs along the way.

Subscriptions and donations from expatriate Belarusians and Belarusian businesses -- particularly IT companies -- do help for at least "partial financing,"'s Pavlyuchenko says.

In December 2023, readers raised 17,000 euros ($18,300) for the site within a few days of Pavlyuchenko announcing online that its funds would only last another two months, maximum.

Keeping these outlets alive should matter to the outside world, the journalists stress.

"Today, mass media is not just a business, but a social mission to deliver free and important information to Belarusian society," Haretski said.

Written by Elizabeth Owen based on reporting by Raman Vasyukovich of Current Time. Owen contributed additional reporting
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    Raman Vasyukovich

    Raman Vasyukovich is a correspondent in Kyiv for Current Time, the Russian-language network led by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA. Born in Belarus, Vasyukovich is a graduate of the Institute of Parliamentarism and Entrepreneurship in Minsk. Before joining Current Time as the channel’s Minsk correspondent in 2020, he worked as a journalist for the independent newspaper Narodnaya Volya and a reporter for European Radio in Minsk.

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