Experts: Belarusians increasingly trust independent media

Belarus protests go on despite cold, pandemic and risk of jail | DW News

At a time when Belarusian and Russian state media are getting closer and closer in their propaganda, Belarusians’ confidence in them is decreasing, media experts say.

Independent media played an important role in covering the protest movement in Belarus, however, journalists themselves, along with the protesters, were victims of repression, experts and journalists noted during a round table organized by the Atlantic Council in Washington on Thursday, February 4 on the topic «Free media confront dictatorship in Belarus». Despite the pressure, their popularity among Belarusians continues to grow, in contrast to the state media channels, the participants of the discussion emphasized..

Former US Ambassador to Ukraine and Head of the Eurasian Center at the Atlantic Council of Washington John Herbst (John Herbst) noted during the discussion that not only peaceful protesters, but also independent journalists were subjected to harsh treatment by the Belarusian authorities, but this fact often receives less attention from the public.

«It was extremely difficult to be a freelance journalist in Belarus in 2020. Independent journalists were detained more than 480 times, 97 of them were subjected to administrative arrest, and 50 media sites were blocked, – cited the static data of the former ambassador. – In total, the journalists spent more than 1200 days behind bars last year. The Belarusian Association of Journalists estimates that as of January 25, 10 journalists are still in prison, and five of them were detained this year.».

Journalist and Visiting Fellow of the Atlantic Council Anna Lyubakova (Hanna Liubakova) noted that the population of Belarus began to pay more attention to independent media and information on social media since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic and the pre-election period before the presidential elections last year. People turned to independent channels of information because they saw the difference between what was happening in the country during the pandemic and what the state media said, the expert emphasized..

«State media lied to them. There was so much manipulation and false information that people just saw the difference. They saw that their relatives were sick and that the only way to get more objective information – these are from social networks, Telegram channels, and independent media. And the trust that independent media won continued to grow».

This helped to increase the popularity of blogger Sergei Tikhanovsky, adds Lyubakov: «He mostly traveled around the country, talked to people and posted it on YouTube. And people trusted and supported him so much that they wanted him to participate in the elections.».

Editor-in-chief of the independent Belarusian Internet portal TUT.BY Marina Zolotova (Maryna Zolatava), in turn, noted that the journalists of her portal were repeatedly subjected to reprisals by the Belarusian authorities, including beatings and administrative arrests. To cover protests and present objective information, they often had to mingle with the crowd during protests, and the publication itself also relied heavily on information received from the readers themselves..

The latter helps a lot in covering events in the difficult circumstances in which the independent Belarusian media have to work today, she added, stressing that journalists, nevertheless, always check the information received from readers. Working in conditions of pressure from the authorities, which can always block the portal, also forces the editorial office to constantly look for new solutions regarding how to convey information to readers..

Social media has become one of the most popular channels for distributing content, says Zolotova: «We had about 40 thousand subscribers on our Telegram channel before the elections, but after the elections, and when the Internet in Belarus was practically turned off for three days, we had more than 400 thousand subscribers».

Marina Zolotova, editor-in-chief of the TUT.BY portal, notes the increasing pressure on journalists.

«Last year, our journalists covering the protests were constantly detained, interfered with and beaten. In such a situation, user-generated content has become an important source of information for us, which is an example of our cooperation with the audience. Our readers send us information 24 hours a day, photos and videos. We, of course, check them for reliability, but this greatly simplifies our work.», – told Marina Zolotova.

«Last year was by far the best and worst year in the history of Belarusian journalism since independence», – said during the discussion the director of the Belarusian service «Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty» Alexander Lukashuk (Alexander Lukashuk). If 2020 was the worst year due to pressure and repression against independent journalists, then it was the best in terms of growth in the number of readers and their support, the journalist adds..

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A feeling of solidarity arose among the journalists themselves, when different independent channels began to publish more of each other’s materials. International support also played an important role for the independent Belarusian media, including trainings for the professional development of journalists..

«We see the heroic efforts of journalists who, despite the repression, find ways to get information and talk about what is happening. Often –quite expensive. However, from a political point of view, it was an amazing time when hundreds of thousands of people suddenly started looking for quality journalism and any kind of information. What is interesting, perhaps for the international community, when I assess what is happening in Belarus, I am surprised – how structurally strong independent journalism was, how it was able to withstand this terrible pressure» – noted Alexander Lukashuk.

According to an expert from the International Strategic Action Network for Security and the Center’s Director of Research «Eurasian states in transition» Andrey Eliseev (Andrei Yeliseyeu, The International Strategic Action Network for Security, the Eurasian States in Transition Research Center), after the presidential elections in August last year, the propaganda in the Belarusian and Russian state media became almost the same.

«There are some minor discrepancies, but 9 out of 10 main propaganda narratives are identical», –says Eliseev. Not only statements that Svetlana Tikhanovskaya are behind Svetlana Tikhanovskaya are becoming the usual narrative of the Belarusian and Russian state media. «western puppeteers», The West organizes «orange revolutions», and in Ukraine, Poland and the Baltic countries, there is allegedly a socio-economic degradation, but also false statements about the spread of coronavirus in the West. It is also often argued that Western countries do not cope with the coronavirus pandemic compared to Russia and Belarus, are generally in chaos, and their vaccines, unlike Russian ones, are also not effective..

At the same time, such misinformation and rhetoric aimed at provoking feelings of enmity are widely spread on social media such as VKontakte, the expert adds..

«I think since last summer it has become obvious that there is no difference between the propaganda of the Belarusian state media and the pro-Kremlin resources. In the three weeks after the presidential elections in Belarus, they were completely synchronized, and as a result, nine out of 10 of their main propaganda narratives are identical. We have published a large study based on a six-month monitoring of the largest Russian social network “In contact with”. We have identified nearly 4,000 posts containing blatant propaganda disinformation or hate speech against individuals and groups of the population of Belarus. It’s a powerful campaign, but the good news is that since then most people haven’t bought it.», – told the co-founder and academic director of the Warsaw analytical center Eurasian States in Transition research center (EAST Center) Andrey Eliseev.

«This is a massive phenomenon, but the good news is that most people don’t believe it.», –says Eliseev, noting that less than 20% of Belarusians trust the state media in Belarus, while independent media inspire the greatest confidence in them.

The participants in the discussion emphasized that independent media do not coordinate the protest movement in Belarus, which they are accused of by the state and pro-Kremlin propaganda. Nevertheless, it was social networks that became a source of objective information that turned into the driving force of the protest..

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