Weekly Digest

The Fix Weekly Digest: Losing and Preserving Freedom of Speech

Protests against Alexander Lukashenko’s rule in Belarus, triggered by a rigged presidential election, are the biggest story in the CEE region now. The tale of Belarusian unrest is in many ways a media story.

After the 26-year reign of “Europe’s last dictator”, the Belarusian media market has forced many independent media outlets into real or virtual exile – operating from abroad or using various technological solutions (notably proxy servers and VPNs that would access content “from abroad”) to circumvent censorship. 

Media have battled Belarusian authorities, constantly trying to find new ways to get the news out. This battle culminated with the regime imposing an internet shutdown across the country in the days after the election, making the country go dark for those watching from outside Belarus.

As a result, protestors turned to non-conventional media, most importantly Telegram channels. A cloud-based messaging service, Telegram is notoriously hard to block. (Russia seems to have given up after two years of unsuccessful efforts.) As quoted by RFE/RL, in Belarus, “to a considerable extent, [Telegram] channels are coordinating the actions of the people who are taking to the streets and public squares because they are the means by which information and action plans are distributed”. 

The most important channel is NEXTA Live, which gathered around 1.8 million subscribers at the time this article was published. That’s a high number for a country with 10 million residents (even though, obviously, a lot of subscribers do not live in Belarus) and for a media outlet without a website and with a tiny editorial team.

The Arab Spring revolutions were famously dubbed “Facebook revolutions” and “Twitter revolutions.” If Belarusian protests are successful, they can go down in history as a Telegram revolution.

As The Fix reported this week, non-profit media organization “Outriders” has launched Unblock. This new digital magazine challenges the ‘Eastern Bloc’ label and aims to innovate reporting from the region.

Quality independent journalism covering Eastern Europe in-depth for international audiences remains relatively scarce. So new outlets reporting on Belarus, Ukraine and Russia are always good for the region’s media landscape.

In the last edition of this digest, we wrote about the Russian government’s alleged repressions against an independent newspaper for coronavirus coverage. This week saw an even more extreme case in Iran.

In Iran, a country that became an early outbreak of coronavirus and whose government has been accused of covering up the real situation with the virus’s spread, a newspaper was shut down after it had published a piece questioning the official COVID-19 statistics. The article had quoted an expert claiming that Iran’s official numbers account for only 5% of real coronavirus cases.

In other news on the freedom-of-speech front, Hong Kong media manager and pro-democracy activist Jimmy Lai was released on bail this week. His release prompted wide celebrations in Hong Kong’s media circles and “a hero’s welcome” for Lai, The Guardian reports.

Jimmy Lai’s arrest for alleged “foreign collusion” is widely seen as another worrisome sign of the grim implications of Hong Kong’s new national security law on freedom of speech in the city. As we wrote back in July, the law’s “broad scope and vague wording can be used to seriously crack down on civil liberties.” We have increasingly seen these fears confirmed.

And some market news. Most companies’ financial reporting on Q2 has been completed within the past month, and now we can get a fuller picture of just how the corona-crisis has impacted the media market across the West. Digiday has assembled a list of the results reported by the world’s biggest media companies. 

According to Digiday’s analysis, “earnings reports for the June quarter reveal the extent to which the advertising market plummeted — with many media owners reporting double-digit revenue declines.” Subscriptions are predictably on the rise, including for original news content and streaming services. Most media companies are reporting some recovery from the early to mid-summer, but “the macroeconomic environment is anything but predictable at the moment.”

Photo on the cover: Homoatrox / CC BY-SA 3.0 / Wikimedia Commons

1 comment on “The Fix Weekly Digest: Losing and Preserving Freedom of Speech

%d bloggers like this: