WASHINGTON -- As last Sunday’s presidential election in Belarus continues to fuel protests and unnerve its leadership, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) journalists continue to defy unrelenting government pressure to break through an information blockade and provide audiences with reporting they can’t get anywhere else.
“Our journalists in Belarus have demonstrated remarkable resilience and courage to keep reporting the news in the face of unbridled government interference and outright danger,” said RFE/RL Acting President Daisy Sindelar. “The government’s shutdown of the Internet on August 9 was the latest attempt during a tightly managed election season to control the information space – and to silence RFE/RL -- but we will not allow it.”
Targeted attacks against RFE/RL’s Belarus Service and Current Time digital network began early in the campaign in response to their reporting on social networks. President Lukashenka twice threatened the Belarus Service, and on June 25 Interior Minister Yury Karayeu openly expressed his displeasure, accusing it of helping to "coordinate” street protests with its live news coverage and threatening to revoke the Minsk bureau’s official status. That same day, authorities arrested Ihar Losik, an independent blogger and a consultant with the Service on digital strategy. In the ensuing weeks, journalists with the Belarus Service endured detentions, beatings, and harassment, and correspondents with RFE/RL’s Current Time network were deported. Police left no doubt about the motive behind their attacks when they grabbed reporters in the middle of live news broadcasts and shoved them into waiting vans.
On election day, despite the chaos in the early hours of the Internet shutdown, RFE/RL’s Belarus Service managed to post video live from Minsk and the regional capitals of Brest and Homel, reporting on early polling results that officially handed a sixth presidential term to Lukashenka, who has already served 26 years in office. The Service went on to record street protests and riot police deployments in coverage that was seen around the world. But by August 10, visits from inside Belarus to its website accounted for just 50.5 percent of all traffic, down from 90 percent only days before. Current Time, which earned more than 16 million video views from Belarus on social networks between August 3-9 and saw views from Belarus on YouTube double to 2.1 million between June and August, also saw its audience drop. According to one media monitoring group, the shutdown reduced connectivity in Belarus by approximately 80 percent.
In addition, the Belarus Service responded by pivoting to radio broadcasts, a platform it abandoned several years earlier after completing a digital overhaul of its operations. Since August 11, it has been available on AM 1386kHz from 21:00 to 22:00 and from 23:00 to 0:00, local time, on a frequency borrowed from RFE/RL’s Russian Service. Listeners from Minsk and Mahilou have told RFE/RL that they have heard the broadcasts, and drivers in Vitebsk and Hrodna have tuned in from their cars.
Said Sindelar, “It is crucial that we have a platform for reaching the people of Belarus that is fully independent of the government. Radio is not a replacement for a free Internet, but it is an additional way for us to provide urgent and uncensored news to our audiences, and we have the agility and expertise to do that.”
Some experts have expressed concern that even if general Internet service is restored, authorities have the capability to target individual websites. Moreover, individual SIM cards, which were blocked in numerous cases during the elections to prevent journalists from sending information and video, can be blocked again.
On August 10, President Lukashenka made a veiled but menacing reference to RFE/RL when he stated that there are “puppet masters of the protests who reside in the Czech Republic” -- where the company’s headquarters is located.
Since the August 9 election, the Committee to Protect Journalists, Reporters Without Borders, and PEN America have condemned attacks on the media and the targeting of independent journalists in Belarus. On August 6, the U.S. Senate unanimously passed a resolution condemning Belarusian government pressure on RFE/RL journalists, among others, and called for a “free, fair, and transparent presidential election in Belarus.”
RFE/RL relies on its networks of local reporters to provide accurate news and information to more than 38 million people in 27 languages and 23 countries where media freedom is restricted, or where a professional press has not fully developed. Its videos were viewed over 3.6 billion times on Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram/IGTV in FY2019. RFE/RL is an editorially independent media company funded by a grant from the U.S. Congress through the U.S. Agency for Global Media.