As State Media Loses Credibility, Belarus's Independent Press Struggles To Fill Void
As Belarusians rapidly lose faith in tightly controlled state media, can the country's feisty but beleaguered independent press seize the opportunity to shape public opinion?
MINSK -- Syarzhuk Holik struggles to suppress a knowing smirk as he thumbs through a copy of "Sovetskaya Belarussia," Belarus's most widely circulated daily.
Crisis? What crisis? According to the paper's lead story, the country's GDP is up 9.8 percent since January and exports have hit record levels of $20 billion over the past seven months.
This is followed by a piece about how ATM machines have been refitted to accommodate handicapped citizens, although it neglects to mention that the Belarusian rubles they disperse are already practically worthless and losing their value by the day.
Holik, a 25-year-old photographer, grimaces as he closes the paper, which has a circulation of 400,000, in disgust. "I don't believe state media, it's full of lies," he says. "I mostly read the independent mass media."
He is not alone. As Belarus reels from an economic crisis, which the country's authoritarian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka appears increasingly unable or unwilling to address, media consumption habits are changing.
And with the upbeat official media narrative increasingly diverging from the harsh realities Belarusians are enduring on a daily basis, it isn't just young, urbane, and Internet-savvy citizens like Holik who are looking for alternative sources of news and information.
According to the Independent Institute of Socioeconomic and Political Research, trust in state media has tumbled in recent months, dropping from 52 percent in December to 43 percent in March. As the crisis continues to deepen, this has led to a rise in demand for the low-circulation newspapers and news websites produced by the country's feisty, yet beleaguered, independent and opposition press.
Indeed, observers say that Belarus's lavishly subsidized state-run media is so out of touch with the needs of the population that it would have long ago become defunct in a competitive market.
State media "are first and foremost tools of propaganda," says Andrey Bastunets, the deputy chairman of the Belarusian Association of Journalists. "Their informational product is orientated toward the person who orders it and not the consumer, the reader, or the listener. It comes from the presidential administration and is thus necessarily less interesting."
But for Belarus's independent journalists, meeting the needs of a population hungry for reliable information amid the sea of state-sponsored propaganda is an increasingly tall order.
The Belarusian Association of Journalists estimates there are fewer than 30 independent news publications in Belarus and many of these have effectively been driven underground or forced into closure.
They suffer constant harassment and are shunned by advertisers, who fear sanctions from the authorities, and therefore must survive on foreign grants and meager sales revenues.
In 2005, state kiosks simply stopped selling independent newspapers, while state printing presses terminated their contracts, forcing independent papers to print abroad, causing editions to be delivered late.
Zmitser Pankavets, deputy editor of the leading independent weekly "Nasha Niva," which has a circulation of 7,000, says KGB agents entered the paper's newsroom on December 29, shortly after the disputed presidential election that returned Lukashenka to power for a fourth term, and confiscated their computers, discs, and memory sticks.
But the paper nevertheless still managed to continue publishing, Pankavets adds, thanks to a little help from its readers. "Work in the office wasn't paralyzed even for one day," he says. "To our great happiness we have good readers and literally within two days, readers on their own accord brought in computers and what we needed so that we could carry on publishing the paper.”
Back in 2008, when Belarus was tentatively initiating reforms in an effort to court the European Union, the authorities allowed "Nasha Niva" and another leading independent paper, "Narodnaya volya," to legally publish in Belarus and to be sold in official news kiosks.
Fears Of Closure
But the pressure resumed amid the crackdown on the opposition that followed the December 19 presidential election. In April, the authorities sought to close the two papers again, but backed off in the face of sustained criticism from the West.
Fears of closure, however, are always present according to journalists. Mariya Eysmant, the deputy chief editor of "Narodnaya Volya," maintains that the warnings her paper receives from the authorities are often frivolous -- and sometimes nonsensical:
"We publish excerpts from books and we end up being issued a warning," she says. "I'm sorry, but this book is published in Belarus - it is not banned. We haven't done anything wrong."
"These warnings are completely dreamed up. We worry so much now. The editor gets cross over commas -- we worry we could get in trouble for a comma or a full stop or for anything as long as there were grounds at any moment to start a case against us and close us. This is the predicament we are constantly in."
Eysmant adds that "Narodnaya volya," which publishes twice weekly and has a circulation of 26,000, would like to increase its print run to meet growing public demand:
"We get a lot of letters from our readers saying that they can’t buy the paper anywhere," she says. "So we wrote an official letter to the Belarusian Printing Union, which owns the kiosks, with a request to increase circulation for the kiosks. They simply refused, without any explanation. They just fear that the circulation of our paper is going to go up."
Internet Is Increasingly Important
Other independent papers are also struggling to get by. "Novy chas," for example, manages to maintain a circulation of 7,000 despite being banned from newsstands. It is distributed to subscribers by its own editorial staff.
The Internet, which is becoming an increasingly important part of the Belarusian media landscape as penetration increases, is proving more difficult for the authorities to tame. According to Internet World Stats, more than 46 percent of Belarusians are regular users.
Belarus's blogosphere, known locally as ByNet, is also booming in use, with LiveJournal, Facebook, and Twitter leading the pack of popular social-networking sites.
Syarhey Chaly is a prominent blogger on LiveJournal and was the ideologist behind this summer's "silent protests," which were mobilized through social networking sites.
"Just like in Russia, [the blogosphere] is very political," he says. "Of course, we have bloggers who just talk about their lives or publish photographs, but in general it deals with sociopolitical and socioeconomic issues."
"What's more it is extremely oppositionist. Now a blog is practically a full-fledged source of mass media. If you have over 100,000 followers, you are effectively an opinion maker."
The online versions of independent newspapers also do quite well. "Nasha Niva," for example, claims it gets around 25,000 hits a day on its site.
Andrey Bastunets believes the state media lags far behind independent news outlets in the battle for online users.
"Practically all major state and non-state news outlets have their own websites," he says. "But in the absence of administrative support and resources [for state media], non-state Internet mass media have clearly outstripped their state counterparts. In the top ten most popular media sites, eight of them are nonstate."
The Fight For The Mind
The trend clearly has the authorities worried, and grappling for some kind of countermeasures.
Mysterious denial-of-service attacks have hit blogging platforms and social networking sites were blocked on the night of December 19, when 30,000 Belarusians gathered on Independence Square to protest perceived vote rigging in the presidential elections.
Moreover, Belarusians are required to present their passports to access the Internet in cafes, and popular opposition news websites like Charter 97 and Belarusian Partizan are blocked in state buildings. These news sites are also subject to pressure. Charter 97's editor fled the country in March.
The authorities can easily disconnect Belarus's single Internet provider. A legal mechanism for doing so was formalized last year, one of 12 laws recently passed in an attempt to regulate the web.
But despite the pressure, Belarus's web-based opposition and independent journalists believe they have the upper hand.
"When you’re doing this as a hobby -- that is, from the heart, then it doesn't require financial resources," says Chaly. "But if it is work then of course it does. And it is also expensive -- especially expensive if it is to be of good quality."
"The authorities are losing the fight for the mind. They tried to create blogs that were meant to carry out this fight and discredit people. But the online community is very consolidated. They instantly figure out these people and isolate them.”