[Editor’s Note] Work on this article was started in February 2022, before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Until February 24, many Belarusian media and technology professionals fled to Ukraine, mostly to Kyiv, in search of a safer place to live and work. Some people among them are quoted in this material. We asked to them about how their life and work has changed after the Russian attack on Ukraine.

In 2022, Belarusians have no chance to safely work in an independent media while staying in Belarus. The mass migration of specialists after the 2020 election and the subsequent crackdown has contributed to the creation of a unique ecosystem scattered across Poland, Ukraine, Georgia, Lithuania, Latvia, and other countries.

The Fix spoke with Belarusian journalists and media managers on the current state of the Belarusian media scene. People we talked to are united by a desire to help Belarusians through better journalistic standards, innovative media projects, and unique business models.

Belarusian media landscape – the survival game 

According to recent estimates by the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ), a year and a half after the 2020 mass protests started in Belarus, 26 journalists remain behind bars. By August 2021, more than 50 media workers were under criminal prosecution and more than 100 news and media sites were blocked.

The whole of 2021 was filled with repressions against organizations and journalists defending human rights. Starting from the mass arrests in January, targeting mostly members of Belarusian Association of Journalists and the Human Rights Center Viasna, through the kidnapping of former chief-editor of NEXTA Roman Protasevich with his girlfriend Sofia Sapega and blocking of the biggest news outlet Tut.by in May.

At the end of 2020, Telegram was the second most popular messenger in Belarus after Viber, according to an infopolicy.biz 2021 report. It remains the most important platform for Belarusian independent media, despite the intention of the Belarusian authorities to jail people for subscribing to extremist channels.

Such a measure was intended to rather scare people since it is impossible under current law to imprison people for subscribing to an extremist channel, said Mikhail Bodnarchuk, a Belarusian lawyer, in an interview with DW.

In February 2022, a journalist in exile Alena Kipelova (not their real name) spoke to The Fix and described the state of the Belarusian media:

“Multiple media companies, including Tut.by, info-agency BelaPAN and Nasha Niva newspaper lost their legal addresses. Now their offices are sealed, some employees are in prison or in exile, and a few remain in place and work, risking their freedom. Printed publications were banned, websites were blocked, and they are available on the territory of Belarus only via VPN. Many of these publishers have already been recognized as extremists. It’s dangerous to read and link to them, readers can be imprisoned for this.  As a result, the vast majority of Belarusian readers were lost”. 

Kipelova adds that the biggest problem for the media in exile is not only the staff reduction or its turnover and lack of funding but access to reliable sources of information. This results in homogeneous, not fully verified content, which is later reprinted by foreign publishers.

Media rebuilding abroad

Everyone that The Fix spoke to for this story has one thing in common: their departure was quick and they don’t know when they will return home. Editorial teams had to build their work from scratch in an unfamiliar place. 

The story of KYKY, a progressive lifestyle online media from Minsk, is representative. The whole team left Belarus just one day after the arrest of its co-founder Alexander Vasilevich at the end of August 2020, dispersing across three different countries. At the beginning of February 2022, Vasilevich was released after more than 17 months in a pre-trial detention center. He was convicted of tax evasion.

Screenshot of KYKY accounts on YouTube and Instagram

”The most difficult part was to explain to our employees how to live on – we left with a toothbrush and an iPhone charger, not knowing that we would not return home in the next couple of years“, says Irina Mikhno, journalist and editor at KYKY.

Looking back, she believes that the team handled the challenge as well as possible Before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the team was working from Kyiv, Vilnius, and Warsaw. “Editorial meetings take place on Zoom, and sometimes we allow ourselves to gather in one country for a retreat,” Mikhno says. (When the invasion began, KYKY’s advertising director Yana Konashuk, who had been living in Kyiv, evacuated to Lviv in Western Ukraine). 

KYKY also faces a problem familiar to most independent Belarusian media – a decline in traffic. According to data for December 2021, the KYKY is visited by more than 175K users monthly. Since the site blocking in December 2020, its traffic has fallen by 18 times, says Mikhno.

The editor explains that the website hasn’t been the main platform for KYKY since the Internet crackdown and site blockings in Belarus in August 2020. After that, Telegram and Instagram became equal media platforms with their own audience. In September 2021, KYKY’s Telegram channel was labelled as extremist.

The crackdown undoubtedly encouraged the media to explore new platforms. KYKY started its YouTube channel in 2018 and keeps on developing it. The publisher also is going to join TikTok soon, said Mikhno. 

Together with hromadske, which launched an account to cover local elections, and International Media Support, The Fix has developed a brief how-to guide on launching TikTok for media companies that is free to access.

Natalia Belikova, Head of International Projects of the Press Club Belarus, defines the main tasks of the media in exile thus: 

  • Keep the connection with the audience remotely
  • Save the Belarusian language
  • Build the professional network of Belarusian media outside the country
  • Become technology savvy to bypass the next government restrictions and explore new platforms – YouTube, Vkontakte, Odnoklassniki, TikTok
  • Do not allow the society to split due to propaganda and atomization
  • Ideally, cover topics that unite people, cause empathy, which is an antidote to propaganda
Natalia Belikova,
Source: Courtesy of Press Club Belarus

Starting a new media project in exile

Not everyone left Belarus with a team and a ready plan. Some start again abroad from the very beginning. The Fix talked to Alena Smirnova and Alexander Katsurin (not their real names), Belarusian media workers in exile, who – besides cooperation with the Belarus-based news outlets – plan to launch their own media. 

“We conceived a project for an online magazine that would help build a community of Belarusian entrepreneurs forced to relocate their business. Our goal is to help them understand what’s happening in their industry, and get a competent look at the economy and politics of the new markets” explains Smirnova.

The goal has to be achieved by high-quality analytics from an open pool of experts regarding the political, economic, and financial situation in Belarus and abroad (in terms of the impact on the business and social life of Belarusians), Katsurin says. 

“We select topics (including the ones requested by subscribers) and order research from specialists. Afterward, analytical articles will be collected into the newsletter and sent out on a paid subscription basis” he explains. 

Initially, the team plans to promote themselves with the teasers from the experts’ articles – partial publication of materials. The finance plan for the first three to four years includes selling a subscription for the first month at a promotional price with a 50% discount. Experts will be paid a higher-than-market-price fee, since the stake is on a quality product, according to Katsurin.

The game to fight the protest-related trauma

Emigration allows Belarusians to implement innovative projects in safer conditions. For Yuriy Kachanov (not real name), former media manager and civil activist, emigration to Ukraine in December 2020 wasn’t a unique experience. As someone repeatedly persecuted by the Belarusian regime and subjected to repression, he knows the feeling of helplessness, despair, and depression among Belarusians.

On the 24th of February, Kachanov was in Riga, doing SSE RIGA mini MBA course. His return flight 2 days later to Kyiv was cancelled due to the war. He flew to Warsaw because Ukraine banned the entry of military-aged Belarusians and froze all bank accounts of Belarusian citizens. Upon arrival, Kachanov took up volunteering: helping in the relocation of Belarusians from Ukraine, including his game team, supporting the Belarusians who remained in Ukraine, including those who defend the country from Russia.

Together with his colleague Max Zagorny (not real name), they planned to launch a game about the Belarusian protest with an informative function. In April, both are in Warsaw and organize the work of the team here, and in Kyiv, changing the concept of the game. Originally it was aimed

at solving problems of burnout and PTSD, informing on rules of safe participation in protests.

“ Lukashenka’s Belarus is no longer acting as an internal dictatorship, but as a direct aggressor.(…) For the Belarusians, the heroism of their feat has been devalued, the sense of pride has decreased, the pain has intensified, and the feeling of guilt has appeared”, claims Kachanov.

In his opinion, a direct reference to the Belarusian protest causes a wave of negativity. Kachanov named key drivers for change:

  • Remove direct connection with events in Minsk
  • Supplement the gameplay with the grotesque and absurd elements
  • Include in the gameplay active opposition to the invaders from the side of the civilians
  • Adding a Ukrainian theme to the street decor, screensavers
  • The episodes will contain references to countries whose participation on the side of Ukraine does not raise questions, incl. the white-red-white flag of the Republic of Belarus (1991-1995)

“We offer protest activity in the format of a game, where the game itself still acts as a hard-to-block method for delivering independent information,” said Kachanov before the war, noting this impossibility of blockading game application developers because their products are distributed worldwide markets.

Game prototypes, courtesy of Yuriy

In April Kachanov and his colleague Max Zagornyi (not his real name), both are in Warsaw, volunteering and organizing the work of the team here, and in Kyiv, preparing the project for the planned launch by the end of May. Donations will be possible after the game’s release.

Driving innovations abroad

Some Belarusian IT, apps, and gaming brands – EPAM, Wargaming, Flo Health, Synesis Group –  have had a huge demand for export. Since 2020, Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia have been trying hard to net the talent behindget them by fast-tracking visas or offering financial packages, hoping to create thousands of new jobs, according to The Washington Post.

Maintaining this trend will contribute to the success of the mentioned above projects. For the media sector, non-profit organizations and foundations are especially important. Some of them continue their work in exile, researching the market, educating media professionals and introducing the best practices in journalism and business strategies. 

For example, Press Club Belarus aims to preserve the community and gradually help Belarusian professionals to develop in the country and abroad. As Belikova explains, the club monitors the Belarusian media space, supports international media networking, and offers free help with content creation by providing educational programs, a studio in Warsaw, and other resources.

Galina Timchenko, publisher and co-founder of Russia’s Meduza, attending one of the Press Club events in Minsk, courtesy of Press Club Belarus

The organization kept on working even after the horrible attacks against its members. At the end of December 2020, the leadership of Press Club Belarus was arrested and detained for 8 months. 

“Analysis of audience behavior is almost impossible in Belarus. A number of visitors show us traffic decrease. It could be a result of fatigue from negative content, going down the degree of political charge, the activity of Russian news-aggregators (Yandex, Lenta.ru) after the Tut.by ban” explains Belikova. She adds that a successful long-term strategy of media in exile should be based on re-invented communication and consolidation of the media community.

Monetization of media with the extremist label

The regime in Belarus does everything to destroy the media that oppose the propaganda machine, including financially. Blockings, ”extremists labels”, and repressions don’t help organizations to make money on advertising or any other usual form of content monetization.

KYKY was one of the few media outlets in Belarus that could afford to pay for the editorial work through native advertising. But even before the site was blocked, it became clear that advertising revenues would decline – independent media are simply unsafe for Belarusian advertisers, states Mikhno. 

This prompted the idea of ​​having a Patreon account, which has been promoted on all publisher’s social media accounts since March 2021. “In the first month alone, we raised about €1.4K, and the total amount raised on Patreon over 11 months is approaching €40K euros – for which we are immensely grateful to our readers,” says Mikhno.

At the same time, Daniil, the founder of Infopoint agency, helps Belarusian media continue making money from advertising despite an extremist status. Infopoint was started in March 2021, based on a group of Telegram channels, including the biggest ones – Belarus Golovnogo Mozga, Moya kraina Belarus, and Usy Lukashenko

In August 2020, there were a lot of advertising requests on Telegram. “In general, the Telegram community works mainly according to the “black” [non-official] model. A person contacts the owner of the channel, sends them money to a crypto wallet or a card, and in return, the owner puts an advertisement. Almost like a market place” explains Daniil.

Description of the represented by Infopoint Telegram channels. Numbers from left to right are followers, average post reach, price per post, screenshot from the website

From the very beginning, Infopoint decided to move to the European Union for safety reasons, which requires local laws to be respected. They registered a commercial legal entity in Poland and NGO in Lithuania.

As of early 2022, the agency works only with media that are part of its network. As Daniil explains, Infopoint will begin a gradual expansion to Belarusian media outside of the network, moving towards cooperation with foreign media.

There are concrete threats and benefits of buying advertising space on Telegram channels with extremist labels: “We are honest with our partners and indicate on the agency website that advertising in our media is primarily for those who keep a legal entity outside of Belarus. At the same time, we understand how many relocated businesses need to build themselves up abroad. Support of the Belarusian public is crucial for them,” says Daniil.

The value of the Infopoint network audiences is qualitative, not quantitative. These are active, progressive Belarusians with a good income and quality education. They are loyal to the publishers and normally perceive advertising publications. Daniil underlines that Infopoint clients start choosing qualitative approaches, become more open to advertising on social media, and trust the editorial teams in terms of advertising content. 

Infopoint takes the standard formula for calculating the average reach of a post multiplied by a coefficient that depends on the period of placement in the channel – the post remains forever or is deleted after 24 hours. According to Daniil, the agency doesn’t seek to dump, nor does it overcharge for providing a receipt and a guarantee. The advertising on their Telegram channels has an average market price: from €30 to €330 per post, depending on the channel’s coverage.

It sounds like the Belarusian advertising market is going to reinvent itself thanks to more transparent, thoughtful cooperation between advertisers and publishers. While foreign publishers seek to introduce paid subscriptions, Belarus relies on voluntary reader contributions and more flexible membership models to keep readers in an environment where access to information is already limited.

Before the war escalation Belikova summed up the changes over the past 1.5 years for the Belarusian media space in the following way: “2020 was the year of the highest focus on media, 2021 was a challenge due to unprecedented repressions, and 2022 will be defined by the way publishers accept the new reality with it”.

Photo by Ang Bob on Unsplash