Authoritarianism and authoritarian regimes create almost insurmountable challenges for the media. Nevertheless, even in the harshest places, journalists persevere. In such circumstances the support of the audience is one of the few sources of hope.
The Fix has been closely watching the difficulties journalists face due to government pressure in Belarus, Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Hungary and in the occupied territories of Ukraine.
What is it they are up against and how can we help our colleagues? The Media Revolutions first session “Media vs. authoritarianism” looked at the challenges and limitations, but also opportunities and solutions from people doing the impossible.
Here is a summary of key insights from the evening.
Volha Siakhovich, legal expert for the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ). “Media Fight in Belarus: A war that needs attention”:
- Most Belarusian media are pro-government and much better resourced. Those related to the “independent camp” are private or supported from abroad [by international donors].
- Online media have the strongest connections with their audiences and reach more audiences daily than governmental TV channels.
- After presidential elections results were announced, Belarusian authorities blocked access to about 50 media websites. Targeted websites started creating so-called “mirrors” – websites with similar but different names. Some also moved to Telegram and other social media platforms.
- 62 journalists were exposed to violence from governmental structures, some were tortured. As of February 22 there are 15 journalists arrested along with 5 Press Club Belarus members, who are being held as political prisoners.
- On February 16, 2021, the police raided the office of the Belarusian Association of Journalists and the private apartments of its staff members. Some were detained, including BAJ leader Andrei Bastunets.
- The only feasible way to support the Belarusian media community for now is information support. It is crucial to not let the world forget about the revolution in the country and society’s struggles.
- BAJ can provide all the data and commentary that can help international colleagues compile stories based on reliable information. [Their site can be found here, this is their contact email: email@example.com – Editor’s note]
More from The Fix: Press Club Belarus leadership arrested
Gergely Nyilas, journalist at Telex.hu. “How a Hungarian media outlet overcame a takeover”:
- Hungarian journalists are not exposed to physical violence, what they are up against is more sophisticated and political, but still dangerous.
- The government owns the majority of media through their pocket investors. They maintain a false status of media freedom, hiding behind a few independent news organizations.
- Most advertisers work with media through large sales houses owned by or associated with the government. Independent news organizations are forced to work through those sales houses if they want any profits. However, their sales can be sabotaged [for excessive criticism of authorities], creating an appearance of a business failure.
- After the formerly independent media outlet Index.hu was taken over by pro-government leadership, its staff left to start a new project – Telex.hu. To survive and be successful in a hostile environment the new media needed a completely new approach.
- Telex.hu‘s goal is to make independent, reliable content available to the audience. From the very beginning of its existence Telex’s team started building a community of supporters that could ensure their sustainability. Now they have over 40,000 paying members and keep growing.
More from The Fix: RFE/RL Reopens in Hungary Amid Press Freedom Decline
Andrey Dikhtyarenko, Chief Editor of Realnaya Gazeta. “Running a media in occupied territories”:
- Realnaya Gazeta uses different approaches and channels to work with diverse audiences from ORDLO (Occupied Regions of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblast).
- Investment in local investigations and analytics helps to meet the demand for independent information about the war across the territory.
- In some cases, journalists are forced to work under observation of the local government to get essential sources for news coverage.
- Launching a newsletter and membership model is a tool to build both a local and international community of readers.
More from The Fix: 7 potent insights, ideas and resources for your newsroom newsletter
Panel discussion – Growth in the times of war: making money and developing new products under pressure
1. Challenges and limitations faced by the media in illiberal states
Pavel Kanygin, journalist at Novaya Gazeta:
- Inter-generational conflict is the main challenge for the team of Novaya Gazeta. You can’t rely on the older, core audience because they are literally dying and there are only a few of them who are able to support the media financially. Youngsters don’t have any regular income yet, even though they are the future. We have to innovate to reach them as they are not classical media consumers.
- Novaya Gazeta decided to go digital, hiring young professionals to conquer digital platforms like TikTok, Instagram and YouTube. Its goal now is to educate new audiences on the new platforms in native multimedia formats.
Bektour Iskender, co-founder of Kloop:
- Kloop is an independent investigative media outlet in Kyrgyzstan aiming to uncover massive corruption both within the country borders and in the larger Central Asian region.
- The team has already diversified its revenue streams via fundraising, crowdfunding and commercial revenues. But Kloop also recognizes its limitations – Kyrgyzstan is a small, poor country. Even if everybody paid it wouldn’t be enough.
- Kloop’s strategy is to develop commercial products that would be useful outside the country’s borders. For example, their investigation revealed a smuggling network in Kyrgyzstan operated by China. It delivered goods to Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Russia. At first sight the story can be local but it spread to other countries as well, creating an opportunity for international cooperation for Kloop.
Andrey Dikhtyarenko, Realnaya Gazeta:
- Media can not put off the coverage of some important cases like war because people want to be aware of this topic. In this case, the next step of media development is to diversify the content by using social media platforms, subscription models, and newsletter system
2. Recommendations for media going through a crisis
- Cooperation with other media outlets can promote the content and help maintain financial stability. Media also should develop the ability to transform information due to world changes and audience’s needs.
- Partnership with colleagues from other news organizations allows media to develop high-quality content and open access to new tools and sources.
- It is also more difficult for authorities to put pressure on such media cooperatives.
- Media content is changing along with public interest. News organizations should be ready to shape news coverage in different ways to engage a diverse set of audiences.
More from The Fix: Models for news media in 2021
Media Revolutions will be held until March 3rd. Join us!