Media development support is needed to close the “black hole” for media freedom in Belarus

Two years after the stolen election, the brutal crackdown on civil society and independent media only seems to continue. Belarusian independent media are a crucial resource against Putin and Lukashenko’s state propaganda, argues IMS’ Emma Lygnerud Boberg

For almost three decades, Belarusian independent media and civil society have carried out their work in the struggle for democracy in a highly repressive environment. Today, 9 August, marks two years since the fraudulent 2020 presidential election and the beginning of a wave of protests against Alexander Lukashenko and his regime. In this repressive environment, support for independent media and continued international media coverage will be crucial to reverse the dismantling- and violations of human rights in the country. 

Whilst Belarusians tirelessly fight for democracy, the authorities continue to systematically tighten legislation restricting civil and political rights. One year ago, UN experts concluded that “…media freedom in Belarus has entered a black hole with no end in sight.” Looking at the situation in Belarus today, it seems like the experts made correct predictions about the future. 

But despite repression, persecution, blocking of websites, the liquidation of hundreds of NGOs and scarce resources, civil society has courageously continued to fight for democracy, and independent media have provided Belarusian citizens with objective news and information. Thousands of activists and journalists have been forced to leave the country but continue their work in exile for a future democratic Belarus. Some fled to Ukraine in the hope of a better life but many have been forced to flee for the second time, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

In May 2022, EU’s body, European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) noted that the situation in Belarus had a profound impact on the geopolitical situation in the region – if the support for civil society and independent media in Belarus, and pressure on Lukashenka’s regime were stronger, the situation in Belarus might be different and the country would not be assisting Russia in its war against Ukraine. The EESC notes that dedicating resources to Belarus’ free media and independent civil society should not be seen as charity but rather as a strategic investment in a safe and secure Europe, especially in the context of the current information war on the European continent.

Continued, genuine, long-term cooperation with Belarusian civil society and independent media is more important than ever. Otherwise, Belarusians will not be able to access objective and verified information about events in the country and the region and are instead forced to rely on Belarusian and Russian state propaganda as sources of information.

According to the Belarusian Association of Journalists, independent Belarusian media have devoted more than 75 per cent of their coverage to the war and the humanitarian disaster in Ukraine. These are media that also reach audiences in Russia. Boosting the support for Belarusian independent media is, therefore, needed to strengthen the independent reporting of the war.

The limited information from within Belarus goes hand in hand with the lack of international media coverage and interest in the country. This has been exacerbated by international media attention being focused on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Belarus now risks falling into oblivion for decision-makers, which allows for the continued strengthening of the Belarusian dictatorship.

International media must actively connect with independent sources in the country and in exile and cover human rights violations taking place in the country as this informs decision-makers and the Belarusian population. International donors must immediately level up the support to projects that promote democratic development in the country. Otherwise, the “black hole” as noted by the UN experts may absorb the prospects of a democratic future in Belarus.