Accessibility links

Breaking News

The Human Cost Of Dismantling Belarus's Independent Media

Journalists in Minsk protest against the detention of their colleagues in September 2020.
Journalists in Minsk protest against the detention of their colleagues in September 2020.

Nastassya worked as a journalist in Belarus for 15 years until 2022, when the media outlet where she worked agreed to comply with the government's demand that Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine be called not a "war," but a "special military operation."

World Press Freedom Day 2024

To mark World Press Freedom Day on May 3, RFE/RL has prepared the following stories about the plight of media in our broadcast area:

"I decided I could not agree with this," she told RFE/RL. "I understood that I would not be able to work as a journalist in Belarus."

"Journalism is a profession that normal people do not leave," she said, fighting back tears. "Such people feel passionately about what they do, because nothing gives such meaning as journalism."

After a massive wave of pro-democracy protests in 2020 following a disputed election that handed strongman leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka a sixth presidential term, the government unleashed sweeping repressions that have utterly transformed the already authoritarian country.

Opposition politicians, civil society activists, and independent journalists have been systematically persecuted. Many have been imprisoned. Many others have been forced to flee their homeland.

Belarus fell 10 places over the past year and now ranks 167th out of 180 countries on press freedoms, according to Reporters Without Borders. “Belarus’ media have never been more repressed by the authorities than since the controversial reelection of [Lukashenka] as head of state in August 2020,” the media advocacy group said.

According to the Belarusian Association of Journalists, 37 media employees are currently in custody, including several prominent editors of once-respected outlets that have since been shut down. That includes RFE/RL journalist Ihar Losik who, in December 2021, was given the longest sentence -- 15 years in prison on charges of "organizing mass riots" and "inciting social enmity." RFE/RL, along with press freedom advocates, have called the charges absurd.

Belarus "has one of the most repressive media climates in the world," Free Press Unlimited, a nongovernmental organization, said.

"With nearly all independent media being banned, websites blocked and/or declared as 'extremist,' which in turn makes following or sharing them punishable by law, the Belarusian media landscape is one of the most restrictive in the world," the group said.

RFE/RL journalist Ihar Losik (file photo)
RFE/RL journalist Ihar Losik (file photo)

"The main source of danger for media professionals in Belarus are the authorities, the police and the courts," the group said.

Nastassya and the other former journalists interviewed for this story asked that their identities be concealed out of concern for their safety and that of their relatives in Belarus.

Even before she resigned, the writing had been on the wall since May 2021, Nastassya says, when the authorities launched an effort to silence, the country's most popular news portal.

In January 2023, after 19 months in pretrial detention, the website's chief editor, Maryna Zolatava, and General Director Lyudmila Chekina were both sentenced to 12 years in prison on various charges including "harming the national security of the Republic of Belarus." journalists Maryna Zolatava (left) and Lyudmila Chekina appear in a Minsk court in March 2023. journalists Maryna Zolatava (left) and Lyudmila Chekina appear in a Minsk court in March 2023.

At the time, Nastassya recalls, there was little outcry over the case from a public that was already worn down by the government's brutality.

She had always felt journalism was "a contract" between the journalist and society and that "society, if necessary, would defend the interests of people who worked as journalists."

The Crisis In Belarus

Read our coverage as Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka continues his brutal crackdown on NGOs, activists, and independent media following the August 2020 presidential election.

"But it became clear that we had no contract with society," she said, "and that everyone was on their own."

After leaving journalism, Nastassya began working as a copywriter in advertising and marketing. "It was my most difficult decision," she said through tears, although she earns much more than she ever did as a journalist.

Nastassya says she consumes less media than before, saying that the unwillingness of people to speak on the record has eroded the quality of reporting. Belarusian media in exile have limited ability to report on developments in the country, she says, and increasingly reprint items from state media or focus their reporting on Belarusians in emigration.

"It isn’t their fault," she added. "Such are the circumstances. I am proud of them all and very grateful to everyone who remains in the profession. I understand how difficult it is today."

"For me, they are heroes," she said, noting that journalists working from abroad risk the safety of their relatives in Belarus, who could have their property confiscated or worse.

The Survivor

In his former life, Uladzimer was a news photographer for His last day as a journalist came on May 18, 2021, when the website was shut down.

Initially he considered continuing to work as a photographer, doing commercial work or wedding photography. But he knew he wouldn't enjoy such work.

He sold his cameras and his car and never looked back. He now works as a long-haul trucker.

"I have never had so much money," he said of his salary of some 2,500 euros ($2,700) a month. "Journalists [in Belarus] don't earn anything like that."

The switch took Uladzimer entirely out of his comfort zone and it took him a tough six months to get used to his new life on the road, travelling throughout Europe and living permanently outside of Belarus.

Leaving journalism has meant a complete change of lifestyle for Uladzimer. All his possessions now fit in two or three bags stashed in the cab of his truck. Mostly, he says, he enjoys not looking twice at the price of everything he wants to buy.

"I feel like a person," he said. "If I want something, I buy it. Luckily, I don't want a lot of things. But I can just go into a store and buy what I want."

The Minsk bureau of RFE/RL was closed and sealed by the Belarusian government in July 2021.
The Minsk bureau of RFE/RL was closed and sealed by the Belarusian government in July 2021.

He says he doesn't miss Belarus and the tumultuous events there. He consciously chose to be "a survivor," he said, rather than a hero in prison.

'A Dream Job'

Ksenia worked as news photographer for a decade. She left the country amid the government crackdown on independent media. Since moving abroad, she has survived mostly doing whatever freelance photography she can get.

"Emigres don't turn down offers," she said. "There aren't so many of them."

Over the last few years, she has drifted away from journalism, both as a professional and as a consumer. She subscribes to a few Belarusian news channels on social media, but finds herself reading them less and less.

She says she was alarmed by the culture of fear in her homeland: friends refuse to respond to messages from her and other journalists out of fear for their safety.

A protest in support of Belarusian journalists in Minsk in September 2020
A protest in support of Belarusian journalists in Minsk in September 2020

Ksenia says she also worries about her unwitting role in Lukashenka's crackdown. She knows that photographs taken during the 2020 demonstrations were scanned and scoured by security agents to identify people for possible persecution.

Now, many newspaper stories featuring anonymous sources are accompanied by photographs with blurred faces and written by journalists who conceal their names.

"Will we someday find out that a journalist sat down and invented a text entirely?" she asked. "I hope not."

Nonetheless, Ksenia says she hopes to return to journalism someday.

"It is a dream job," she said. "Yes, it is difficult. But you do something different every day and you have access that you would not have in other professions. You never know where you might end up."

"I remember the events in Belarus [in 2020]," she added. "I remember where I was and I think, 'Wow. I went through that.'"

Written by Robert Coalson based on reporting by RFE/RL's Belarus Service

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

If you are in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine and hold a Russian passport or are a stateless person residing permanently in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine, please note that you could face fines or imprisonment for sharing, liking, commenting on, or saving our content, or for contacting us.

To find out more, click here.