Earlier this year, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya decided to run for president in Belarus, a country widely known as “Europe’s last dictatorship,” after her husband, a popular YouTuber who had planned to run himself, was jailed. Alexander Lukashenko, the longtime dictator, allowed Tikhanovskaya to stand, and used her candidacy as an opportunity to crack sexist jokes. But her bid quickly gained momentum, drawing thousands of Belarusians into the streets to demand change. They didn’t get it—an election was held in August, officials declared Lukashenko the winner amid widespread claims of massive fraud, and Tikhanovskaya went into exile in neighboring Lithuania. But Belarusians haven’t given up. Massive protests against Lukashenko’s rule have continued on a weekly basis. The authorities have continued to respond with violence.
As I wrote in August, journalists have been swept up in the repression. Officials arrested more than forty reporters between May and July as the protests swelled, and detained others in the days either side of the election—further tightening an already-dire climate for press freedom. On election night, law enforcement in Minsk, the capital, arrested four Russian journalists including Maxim Solopov, of the independent Russian outlet Meduza. (As of my writing, his colleagues had been unable to locate him; it turned out he was being deported to Russia.) The authorities beat Solopov and several other reporters, and shot Nataliya Lyubneuskaya, of Nasha Niva, at close range with a rubber bullet. She subsequently spent thirty-eight days in a hospital. “This is the award the state has given me for my work as a journalist. No apology, no criminal case against the shooter, and, God forbid, no compensation,” she told Meduza in September. (In fact, officials said they would fine Nasha Niva for failing to give timely notice of a workplace injury.) “That was my favorite pair of jeans and a one-of-a-kind leg,” Lyubneuskaya added. “I’m getting through my trauma just like other Belarusians—through humor, because fear doesn’t help and justice is over.”
From the magazine: Out of Nowhere
The press threats haven’t let up since then. The Belarusian Association of Journalists (which recently received a press-freedom award from the Canadian and British governments) reported three-hundred-and-thirty-five arrests of reporters between August 9 and November 9. Many of them were handed short prison sentences; Reporters Without Borders calculated that they collectively served more than six-hundred-and-fifty days in jail in the same time period. On November 12, Roman Bondarenko, a protester who had been beaten by police, died in hospital; three days later, protesters took to the streets with signs that read, “I’m going out” (the last known words that Bondarenko typed on the messaging app Telegram), and officials detained over a thousand people nationwide—a record-setting single-day figure that included at least twenty-three journalists. Ihar Karney, Andrey Shaulyuha, Andrey Rabchyk, and Yulia Kotskaya, who were on assignment for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, a broadcaster funded by the US government, were among those arrested, as were Katsyarina Andreyeva and Darya Chultsova, of Belsat TV, a Poland-based channel aimed at Belarusian viewers. Andreyeva was filming the protests from a private apartment when ten or so officers broke down the door and took her away; she initially spent a week in jail, but now faces more serious charges and a possible three-year sentence. Last week, her husband, Ihar Ilyash, who also works for Belsat, was arrested, too, even though he hasn’t been covering the protests. Meanwhile, Katsiaryna Barysevich, a court reporter with the independent news site Tut.by, was arrested while investigating Bondarenko’s death. A doctor she quoted faces criminal charges for “disclosing medical secrets.”
Reporters in Belarus have more to worry about than just being arrested. The Lukashenko regime placed restrictions on internet access and blocked access to more than a hundred news sites; in early October, it revoked the media credentials of Tut.by through the end of the year. (While the revocation removed various access privileges, Tut.by pointed out that accreditation is voluntary, and vowed to continue publishing.) Officials deported two Associated Press journalists, and eventually canceled almost all other accreditation for foreign outlets. “Every time I tried to renew it, I was told, ‘unfortunately the commission in charge can’t meet because of COVID-19,’” Nick Connolly, who covered the protests for the German broadcaster Deutsche Welle, said—an unconvincing argument, since Lukashenko has said that people can stave off the disease by going to the sauna and drinking vodka. In late October, a court declared that NEXTA-Live—a Telegram channel that has live-streamed the protests to millions of followers—and its logo are “extremist material.” Officials placed the channel’s top editors, Stepan Putilo and Roman Protasevich, under criminal investigation, and have been trying to extradite them to Belarus from Poland, where they are based.
Despite the bleakness of the picture in Belarus, there are grounds for hope. Journalists have continued with their coverage, despite the immense pressures they face, and many Belarusians appear to be tuning in. “People don’t trust state media and don’t trust Lukashenko,” Anton Trafimovich, an RFE/RL correspondent in Minsk, told Nieman Reports recently. “The media don’t quote him as much as before because there are new speakers. He is not the agenda setter anymore.” In late September, Samuel Greene, of King’s College London, and Anna Lyubimtseva, of Sociolytics, surveyed media consumers in Belarus; fewer than a third of respondents said that they watch state TV, with three quarters saying that they get their news on social media. Nearly sixty percent of respondents said they regularly follow Tut.by’s coverage, and nearly half said they get news from Telegram, with many respondents saying that they discovered those sources in the last few months. In addition to the protests, Greene and Lyubimtseva argue that Lukashenko’s mismanagement of the pandemic diminished confidence in state media. “When policy fails, propaganda can pick up the slack. However, when both fail, revolution ensues,” they wrote in the Washington Post, summarizing general research on autocracy. “The Belarusian case suggests there’s an intermediary step: turning off the TV.”
And cracks have started to show in Lukashenko’s grip on power, even if their depth remains hard to gauge. Last Thursday, Russia, the key regional guarantor of Lukashenko’s stability, sent Sergey Lavrov, its foreign minister, to Minsk, where he urged Lukashenko to follow through on constitutional reform; the next day, Lukashenko indicated that he supports weakening the powers of the president, and hinted that he would not serve under a new constitutional settlement, though he did not offer a timeline or any other details. Belarusian opposition leaders accused him of stalling, and have continued to demand his immediate ouster.
Watch this space. In the meantime, we owe journalists in Belarus solidarity and at least a portion of our ongoing attention. Western outlets have continued to cover the protests, but since the immediate crisis of August, they’ve struggled to cut through the crowded news cycle in the US, in particular. Change does not happen on a cable-news timeline; it requires patience, fortitude, and, often, telling the same truths over and over again. The protesters in Belarus understand this well. So do the country’s bruised, yet determined, reporters.
Below, more international media news:
- Solidarity: Last week, the editorial board of the Post called on the incoming Biden administration to show solidarity with the people of Belarus. Biden, the paper argued, should invite Tikhanovskaya to his inauguration and to meet with him in the White House, “to show the world that the United States once again supports democracy.”
- The resistance: In early September, Masha Gessen, of The New Yorker, interviewed the Belarusian writer Svetlana Alexievich, who was, at the time, the last remaining original member of an opposition council not to have been imprisoned or gone into exile. “I’m going to be here to the end,” Alexievich said. In late September, however, she did leave Belarus, to receive medical treatment in Germany. She initially declined to do interviews, but following the death of Bondarenko, she spoke with the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel. She said she plans to stay in Germany “until Lukashenko is gone.”
- Meanwhile, in Russia: Over the weekend, NTV, a Kremlin-funded channel, aired a skit in which Tigran Keosayan—who is married to Margarita Simonyan, the top editor at RT, which is also Kremlin-backed—hosted a “satirical” conversation with Barack Obama, who was portrayed by a white actor in blackface. Simonyan defended the broadcast. Also in Russia, a fake anti-Russia quote attributed to Antony Blinken, Biden’s nominee for US secretary of state, has been circulating in the press. Meduza has more.
- Facebook News of the world: Facebook announced yesterday that its News feature, which already launched in the US, will go live in the UK next month—the first confirmed step in a broader international rollout. The company is pledging to pay British publishers “for content that is not already on the platform” and to give them access to “more advertising and subscription opportunities.” The UK, though, has Facebook in its sights: the country’s government plans to create a regulator that will aim to restrain the market power of big-tech firms.
- Dead-tree news: Also in the UK, The Guardian’s Jim Waterson profiles The Light, a self-described “truthpaper” that—in a bid to bypass social-media fact-checkers—has been circulating conspiracy theories in print. The Light has been distributed widely by volunteers recruited from anti-lockdown Facebook groups, and its readers have then taken photos of its contents and uploaded them to the web, “allowing the false claims to spread across the internet again.”
Other notable stories:
- For CJR’s new magazine on this transitional moment for journalism, Ruth Margalit explores what has been lost—and gained—as physical newsrooms have shuttered amid the pandemic and staff have shifted to remote work. “There’s a whole subterranean part of this, which is about collaboration and mentoring and the psychological impact of working in isolation,” Michele Matassa Flores, the executive editor of the Seattle Times, said. “Those things we’re just beginning to see.” Relatedly, Noel Bowler, an Irish artist, has been photographing newsrooms for a project. The Guardian ran some of his work.
- Yesterday, Ajit Pai, the chair of the Federal Communications Commission, confirmed that he will step down when Biden enters the White House. Politico’s John Hendel writes that Pai’s impending departure likely dooms Trump’s push to strip social-media platforms of their legal-liability protections—but Pai will still oversee oral arguments in a Supreme Court case related to the FCC’s rollback of media-ownership regulations, and Republican senators are working to confirm another Trump nominee to the FCC by the end of the year, a move that could hinder Biden’s efforts to unwind some of Pai’s policies.
- Also yesterday, Scott Atlas—who caught Trump’s eye as a guest on Fox News and was subsequently appointed to the White House, where he advocated a laissez-faire response to the pandemic—resigned. Atlas “was the purest example of the Trump-Fox feedback loop in action: An unqualified ideologue launched to power because the president liked his Fox hits,” Matt Gertz, of Media Matters for America, tweeted. “The result was that a lot of people died from the coronavirus for no reason.”
- Margaret Sullivan, media critic at the Post, argues that, with its rivals gaining viewership, Fox News has an opportunity to reinvent itself, continuing to serve a right-leaning audience but “with an emphasis on reporting and strictly within the realm of truth.” That thesis got some pushback. CNN’s Brian Stelter told her that he fears Fox’s audience “would reject the improvements,” and the media critic Dan Froomkin called the idea of a “fact-based” Fox News “an oxymoron… an empty glass, spun sugar in a monsoon.”
- The Center for Community Media at the City University of New York published a map locating community news outlets that primarily serve Black audiences; the map is mostly comprised of “newspapers owned by an African-American publisher that print in cities with significant Black populations,” but also includes “digital startups that cover niche topics, publications that serve West Indian and African audiences, radio stations, nonprofit newsrooms, and more.” (Editors are inviting further suggestions for inclusion.)
- CNN’s Kerry Flynn profiles Dawn Davis, who left behind a long career in book publishing to take over as editor in chief of Bon Appétit, becoming the first Black woman in the role. “It’s going to dramatically change,” Marcus Samuelsson, a chef and Bon Appétit adviser, said of the magazine under Davis’s leadership. “It’s going to be dramatically more inclusive.” (Samuelsson guest-edited the magazine’s holiday issue, which is out today.)
- In media-jobs news, Emily Atkin, who runs the climate newsletter HEATED, is now also writing columns for MSNBC. The New York Times is opening a bureau in Spain and tapping Nicholas Casey, the paper’s former Andes bureau chief, to lead it. John Bresnahan, Politico’s Congressional bureau chief, is leaving the site after fourteen years. And J.D. Heyman is out as editor in chief of Entertainment Weekly, the Times reports.
- For The Atlantic, Ilana E. Strauss profiles Anne McCloy, an anchor at CBS-6 in Albany, New York, who has tried to help thousands of people complete their unemployment claims as official phonelines have remained jammed. “McCloy is widely cited as a hero,” Strauss writes. “But if a news anchor has to step in to ensure that Americans get the benefits they’re entitled to, there may be something wrong with the system.”
- And Jordan Kutzik, of The Forward, explores the rivalry between Der Blatt and Der Yid, two Hasidic Yiddish newspapers in New York that, respectively, “serve more or less as official state organs for the rival Satmar Rebbes, brothers Aaron and Zalman Teitelbaum.” Like state media in North Korea, China, or Cuba, Kutzik adds, “the tone of the coverage is widely understood to reflect the party line on hot button issues.”