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Help needed: what can be done to support Belarusian media

Belarusian media are going through a unique ordeal. The Fix asked journalists, editors and media managers about what support they need the most

Editor’s note: A number of Belarusian journalists and media managers contributed to this article.The identities are not disclosed for security reasons, but neither are the specific recommendations on what is needed and how it may be delivered. For a more detailed report, please reach out directly to Daryna Shevchenko at shevchenko.mdf@gmail.com

Today is day 48 of Belarusian revolution. The dictatorship is cracking, but its influence remains devastating, not least for the free media in the country. Since the beginning of unrest authorities have detained over 200 journalists, shocking the global media community.

A lot of messages of support have shown up on social media. They are needed, but do little to help journalists still working in the country – who run up against a brutal reality each day.

Looking past the horrific violence and intimidation – and there has been plenty of that – Belarusian media face an extremely difficult environment in which to work. 

Fines imposed following an arrest can reach $500, legal fees can be even higher. The state pressures companies working with independent media, costing them advertisers and forcing them to find alternative and more expensive options. 

All this puts a heavy burden onto media budgets at the times when sustainable and independent media production is critical for saving the country’s democracy.  

The Fix spoke to journalists, editors and media managers – from Minsk, other Belarusian regions, or in-exile – asking them to prioritize their needs in the current situation. For security reasons all of them have been kept anonymous. Here is what they told us.

What could help deliver the money to cover such needs in time is a rapid response fund – a joint financial support initiative, able to respond to a fast-changing situation almost immediately

Flexible and rapid financial support

Independent Belarusian media are being financially suffocated. They keep losing advertisers, commercial partners and donations. This puts their very survival at risk. 

What is most needed is institutional support – covering staff salaries and production costs – to keep the media running. Though launching a new media is relatively straightforward, the loss of audience and relationships during any transition is inevitable. Hence, this money is needed now, not in half a year when it may already be too late. 

This is particularly important as protests tend to increase costs for media – equipment is damaged or confiscated, and needs to be urgently replaced.

But what is even more urgent is helping newsrooms get their journalists out of detention centers. That means providing them with legal assistance and covering legal fees and fines.

Such funds need to be flexible and fast. What could help deliver the money to cover such needs in time is a rapid response fund – a joint financial support initiative, able to respond to a fast-changing situation almost immediately, says a now exiled media expert from Belarus.  

Opportune editorial support

Among the many challenges faced by the media community – Russian and Belarusian state propaganda is one of the most serious ones. The propaganda machines have stepped up their game to fill the information space with fake news and disinformation. 

Fact-checking misinformation has become part of newsrooms’ daily routine. But there are too few resources to systematize and scale this work.

“We have already grown our own pool of capable fact checkers, but they cannot afford to devote enough time for battling fakes,” says one media expert.

She adds that a partial solution is direct fact-checking support – money for staff salaries, honorariums and project coordination – that would allow people to focus their efforts on full-time work.

On the other side as the revolution continues many media tend to focus on news and short-term reporting often missing the bigger picture. Others simply lack resources to cover important regional stories. 

What could help, the experts believe, is cross-border cooperation on content projects with international media organizations (the former doing reporting, the latter working to compile materials and editing). 

Joint editorial initiatives can help Belarusian media get their stories out into the world news agenda, cover parts of salaries and honorariums for local reporters, and help local media survive the crisis.

Services of psychological support are already developing in the country, but the need for continuous therapy will only grow with time. 

Psychological support 

Working under the conditions experienced by Belarusian journalists and media staff, including living through arrests and torture, can lead to severe psychological trauma. 

Services of psychological support are already developing in the country, but the need for continuous therapy will only grow with time. 

Journalists and media managers emphasize that now is the time to grow a network of therapists with experience in treating trauma and PTSD, who can work within national psychological support efforts. 

As mental health experts readily explain, waiting rarely helps. Efforts to support media professionals should be linked up with those aimed at the general public (although having therapists who specialize in working with journalists, who face unique challenges, is important). Online and offline, group and individual sessions all have their place.

Arriving media staff need help in securing permits and visas, finding accommodation, as well as financial aid for the first few months of life abroad

Help with relocation

In some cases, however, the immediate danger is just too great, and journalists need to be relocated as fast as possible. 

A good reporter should first of all staf alive – all the security instructions for journalists say. “This state, it’s no joke. When it’s too dangerous – we would need all the help available,” says a chief editor of one of Belarusian regional media. 

Getting someone out is actually made up of two parts – actually getting them out of the country and then making sure they “get in” to a new one. The latter is not necessarily easy for citizens with Belarusian passports.

The situation on the ground is volatile – last week Lukashenka announced borders would close, but some transit has persisted. 

But that doesn’t mean there is no work to be done at key arrival locations (primarily in Poland, Lithuania and Ukraine – Warsaw, Vilnius and Kyiv being the big three destinations). Each country has its own regulations.

Arriving media staff need help in securing permits and visas, finding accommodation, as well as financial aid for the first few months of life abroad. In some cases, support needs to be provided not on the individual, but the organizational level, helping media essentially set up an office abroad.

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These are just a few ways to help Belarusian media overcome the challenges they are facing. The biggest challenge is to help media in a system that has essentially locked itself out of the world, and is becoming more isolated by the day.

It is in the hands of the international community of diplomats, lawmakers, donors and journalists to help move those walls, by putting as much pressure on Lukashenka and his government as possible, intensifying negotiations and keeping Belarus up on the world’s political agenda. 

Whatever happens next, the global community needs to be ready to help the people of Belarus in general, including the media community. They have braved threats and great odds to stand for “Our freedom, and Yours”, as the saying goes. 

Able to help Belarusian media? Reach out directly to shevchenko.mdf@gmail.com for more details on what can be done.

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