Belarusian state is using economic constraints to control information space
The Belarusian authorities have preserved a high control in the country’s information space, but mainly in print and conventional electronic media. Authorities have softened repressions against the independent media, but enhanced financial pressure, introduced numerous legislative restrictions and bolstered economic discrimination against non-state media. Independent media is only afloat thanks to international donor support and relatively mild Internet regulations.
In Freedom House’s annual Freedom of the Press ranking Belarus has moved up to 192nd place from 194th from 199.
Freedom House in its Freedom of the Press ranking has put Belarus alongside with countries with rigid political regimes or armed internal conflict, such as Syria, Iran, some African states and others. Some independent Belarusian analysts have been surprised about such a low assessment of the press freedom situation in Belarus.
With overall liberalization and fewer repressions against opponents amid improved relations between Minsk and Western capitals, the Belarusian authorities have softened repressions against independent media and journalists. However, except for some cases of ill-treatment of journalists, the state has stepped up the financial pressure on independent journalists.
The authorities have put significant restrictions on economic activity and financial stability of the independent media. According to experts, the vast majority of non-state socio-political media is experiencing a funding shortage and is prompted to seek foreign donor support. According to Freedom House director in Vilnius Vytis Jurkonis, only two popular independent online portals TUT.BY and Onliner.by, as well as two regional independent media outlet raise enough funds within the country.
Thanks to the high penetration of the Internet in Belarus, opportunities for independent media to disseminate information have increased significantly. The Internet has reduced non-state media’s dependence on traditional dissemination channels monopolised by the state. For instance, such state-owned enterprises as "Belsoyuzpechat" and "Belpochta" often refused to include independent print media outlets in their distribution systems.
In recent years, law enforcement agencies have changed their approaches to suppressing the professional activity of independent journalists. Instead of harsh repressive actions, the authorities often harass independent reporters financially. For example, law enforcement agencies often punish freelance journalists working for foreign media with hefty fines (eg Belsat TV and Radio Racyja). That said, the average size of fines issued by courts are often higher than the average salary. Some regional journalists have overdue fines that exceed the annual average income in their cities.
Financial persecution has prompted some independent journalists to desperate actions. For instance, freelance journalist from Gomel, Zhukovsky, was punished seven times for cooperating with Belsat in 2016 and the amount of overdue fines has exceeded USD 4400. The authorities were prompted to half the amount of overdue fines after the journalist sewed his mouth together in protest against the persecution.
While independent media outlets and journalists suffer from economic discrimination, the state media are entitled to administrative preferences and financial support from the state.
The authorities control the Belarusian information space by using economic discrimination against non-state socio-political media outlets and financial harassment of independent journalists.
The Belarusian authorities regard the Catholic conference as yet another international event to promote Minsk as a global negotiating platform. Minsk’s proposal to organise a meeting between the Roman-Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox Church is rather an image-making undertaking than a serious intention. However, the authorities could somewhat extend the opportunities for the Roman-Catholic Church in Belarus due to developing contacts with the Catholic world.
Minsk is attempting to lay out a mosaic from various international religious, political and sportive events to shape a positive image of Belarus for promoting the Helsinki 2.0 idea.
Belarus’ invitation to the head of the Holy See for a meeting with the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church should be regarded as a continuation of her foreign policy efforts in shaping Minsk’s peacekeeping image and enhancing Belarus’ international weight. The Belarusian authorities are aware that their initiative is unlikely to find supporters among the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow. In Russia, isolationist sentiments prevail.
In addition, for domestic audiences, the authorities make up for the lack of tangible economic growth with demonstrations of growth in Minsk’s authority at international level through providing a platform for religious, sportive and other dialogues.