oDR: Interview

Belarus’ most famous media outlet wants its title back – and its people freed

Staff from Zerkalo – born from the ashes of TUT.BY – discuss being branded ‘extremists’, having 15 colleagues arrested, and how they continue their work in exile

Ilya Yablokov
16 October 2021, 12.00am
TUT.BY's office in 2018
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(c) Viktor Drachev/ITAR-TASS News Agency/Alamy Live News. All rights reserved

Belarus’ newest online news portal, Zerkalo, or Mirror, emerged from the wreckage of the country’s most famous media outlet, TUT.BY.

For more than 20 years, TUT.BY informed millions of readers about what was happening in Belarus and the world. That is, until the Lukashenko regime closed it down this year by arresting 15 of its employees.

This move left TUT.BY’s remaining staff with a problem: how to salvage the country’s most popular media, even though doing so risked criminal prosecution – and yet still remain true to the audience-winning model while operating outside the country’s borders. In the year since presidential elections gave way to mass police violence against protesters and fierce crackdown on any independent acticity, journalism itself has become a crime in Belarus.

But though media workers have always faced considerable pressure in Belarus, the country’s authorities were not quick to realise the ‘danger’ of online communication. In 2019, TUT.BY even managed to officially register itself as an online publication, and the outlet became a resident of a new high-tech industrial park in Minsk – Belarus’ analogue of Silicon Valley, which was created to support numerous IT startups.

"Continuing the work of TUT.BY would have led to the imprisonment of even more people. We were sorry to change the brand – it’s a very big brand. But we have become a successor"

It was TUT.BY’s connection with the Minsk high-tech park, however, that sparked an inspection by the State Control Committee of Belarus in May 2021. On the basis that TUT.BY had allegedly received “unjustified tax breaks” as a resident of the park, security officials searched the newspaper’s office, employees’ apartments, and its hosting provider. The work of the publication was instantly paralysed, and journalists and employees, including the editor-in-chief and chief accountant, were arrested. Later, TUT.BY’s website and email services were blocked after the outlet reported information provided by an organisation that aids people who have been targeted by the authorities. TUT.BY’s employees are still in jail today.

Other staff joined the thousands of others leaving the country following the attack on their outlet, and set up Zerkalo in August 2021. For our new series on how to manage a media in unprecedented times, openDemocracy talked with two representatives of the Zerkalo editorial staff: acting editor-in-chief Anna Kaltygina and communications director Alexandra Pushkina.

Despite emigration, the need for objective news from Belarus has not disappeared: neither for people who left, nor for those who stayed in the country. Unfortunately, Zerkalo, like TUT.BY, was immediately declared an ‘“extremist”’ organisation, and their work in Belarus has been prohibited under the threat of criminal prosecution. On 13 October, it was announced that users who subscribe to "extremist" channels on the popular social network Telegram could face up to seven years in jail.

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Alexandra Pushkina and Anna Kaltygina | Source: Personal archive

How did you end up working for TUT.BY and how has your career developed in the publication?

AK: I came to TUT.BY in 2011, when I became an editor in the news department. Then I headed the news department, until the authorities targeted us in May this year, and the publication was closed. I moved to another country, we launched a new media, and now I work as acting chief editor.

AP: I started working at TUT.BY in 2019 as a communication specialist. It turned out that the primary task for Belarusian media is the work of a PR specialist. On 18 May 2021, when our publication was destroyed, I was abroad and was able to intercept TUT.BY communication without interruption. I was unable to return home. Now I am responsible for communication and distribution of Zerkalo.io. And in the international arena, my task is to talk about what’s happening to our colleagues at TUT.BY, but the situation in Belarus as a whole.

You are the only ones who represent Zerkalo publicly?

AK: Yes, and this is our decision. There were volunteers, but we did not want all team members to make themselves public. They have relatives and friends in Belarus. We decided that the two of us would be enough. And the rest… well, they work.

How many people are currently working in the publication?

AK: 12 people: four editors, eight journalists and a social media team.

That is a very small team for a media outlet.

SP: In addition to the editorial office, there is also a back office: designers, programmers, support. There are 30 people in total.

"We did not prepare for a situation where 15 people would be detained, the rest would have their apartments searched and our company would be paralysed. When all this happened, we had to come up with a new plan very quickly"

None of them live in Belarus?

AK: No.

How long did it take them to leave?

AK: It was a lengthy process. I left on 25 May, the day that the plane with [Belarusian dissident] Roman Protasevich landed [in Minsk]. Some colleagues were able to leave a month later when they tied up all their affairs. We prepared to leave for a month and a half.

Was there any kind of surveillance on you?

AK: The authorities visited some of our colleagues. And this hastened their departure. Others went underground. But no one lived in the dugouts – they took precautions so as not to run into the security forces.

How did TUT.BY become so popular?

The history of TUT.BY began in the late 1990s when Sergei Dmitriev, a tech journalist, and Yuri Zisser, head of a new IT firm, set up an internet platform that posted news, information on currency exchange rates, a messaging forum and an email account service.

Gradually, TUT.BY’s digital services began to subsidise the newsroom: by the beginning of the 2010s, the project had become a fully fledged media outlet, with sections on sports, politics and finance.

By its 20th anniversary in 2020, TUT.BY had become the number one media outlet in Belarus in terms of audience coverage, successfully competing with both Belarusian and Russian media.

Hide

Did you prepare a ‘Plan B’ in case TUT.BY would ever be closed?

AK: We planned for the event that one thing would happen to us. For example, TUT.BY would be blocked –in this case, we had a ‘Plan A’. If any of our people are arrested, we had a ‘Plan B’. But we did not prepare for a situation where 15 people would be detained, the rest would have their apartments searched and our company would be paralysed. When all this happened, we had to come up with a new plan very quickly. And Alexandra played a key role in it.

AP: Fifteen of our people were detained, and this included people in secondary positions. We had originally planned that if management was detained, then decision-making powers would pass to people in secondary roles, for example, to the chief accountant – but our accountants were also imprisoned.

When a company is left without its top and second level of management, who can receive a power of attorney? This stalled our work. How could we make it legal? Not to mention the skills of the people who remained behind bars. When this situation happened, we spoke with our founders. They no longer did any work at TUT.BY, but nevertheless they were in this media from the very start and understood what was happening. We decided to save our people – both those who could leave and those who were in prison.

Basically, we split into two teams. The first solved economic issues... [such as] unfulfilled obligations to advertisers, those who have already paid for large annual contracts, or that some of our people quickly quit so that after the media was recognised as extremist, they would not be detained. This [work] was done by the team of founders of TUT.BY.

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15 TUT.BY staff were arrested in May 2021 | Image: TUT.BY

Others have already gone abroad and decided what functions to perform in the work of the media –we no longer worked according to our job descriptions. We understood that we needed to continue working smoothly. At first, we worked on social media. The founders of TUT.BY gave us the right to use them. We managed to survive without a website for some time.

All our employees who could work worked on a mirror site of TUT.BY. But after the Ministry of Internal Affairs accused us of ‘extremism’, we changed our plans. We decided we needed a new brand, so that the fact we continued working in the media would not affect the lives of those who are in prison or are physically in Belarus. After all, the Belarusian authorities don’t think too much about who they’re imprisoning or for what. Continuing the work of TUT.BY would have led to the imprisonment of even more people. We were sorry to change the brand – it’s a very big brand. But we have become a successor.

Zerkalo is a new brand, a new company. In Belarus, we would not be able to register a new media, we understood that no one in Belarus can continue working as journalists. We acted on the basis that in Ukraine, where we registered a brand, there’s a similar language environment. But not all of us work in Ukraine – we are scattered across different countries. In fact, we only have the option of working online. Now we have a legitimate, complete team and a legal entity. Although working abroad, when you are not in the country, includes certain nuances, you have to follow the agenda.

As a rule, Zerkalo puts out short news, local issues. You don’t have long reads, for example. Is this a special editorial decision dictated by the safety of journalists or financial resources?

AK: I would argue. At TUT.BY there were 58 of us, and now there are 12 – we cannot issue news and longreads in the same volume. Every day we publish several large materials: interviews or analyses of events in Belarus. As a news reporter, I would like to see more news, but we are trying to close these gaps. Another thing is that the specificity of Belarus does not allow working there. Any journalist who works with us will be subject to criminal prosecution and may end up behind bars. We cannot send any journalist to Belarus to work on behalf of Zerkalo.

"Our readers are a very grateful audience. They help us with content, photos, videos. There is something to write about, even without being in Belarus"

So it’s hard to write about Belarus without being in Belarus. For example: the immigration crisis – we can go to see how this is happening from outside Belarus. But we cannot look from the other side. This limits us, but Zerkalo, as the successor of TUT.BY, has an additional resource. Our readers are a very grateful audience. They help us with content, photos, videos. There is something to write about, even without being in Belarus. But, of course, it is very frustrating that we do not have reportages.

That is, Zerkalo’s content is driven by readers?

AK: No, I disagree. Our editorial policy is determined by the editorial team. Periodically Belarusian state propaganda, some state journalists criticise us for not talking about certain problems. Sometimes the opposition reproaches us for something. Sometimes dissatisfied readers write to us. But we ourselves determine what we write about.

Let me give you an example: the Belarusian Prosecutor General’s Office reported that in fact, people who are detained by the police are being treated well. Prosecutors did not receive any complaints from people in custody. We just asked on our social networks whether this was true, and people began to send their stories in droves. Everything was confirmed by documents, stories – and we wrote a detailed article. But we ourselves chose the topic. We are not an editorial team that works on user-generated content. But without readers, this article would not have happened.

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For years, TUT.BY was Belarus' most popular news and digital services provider | (c) ITAR-TASS News Agency/Alamy Live News. All rights reserved

Russian journalists often look at what is happening in Belarus and say: in a few years we will have the same. Do you agree with this dynamic and this assessment?

AK: I have believed for a long time that this is correct. Sometimes there is a feeling that some laws are being tested in Belarus that could be adopted in Russia. For example, in Belarus there is a tax on [people not in full-time work, known as] ‘parasitism’. In Russia, this topic was also discussed, but it was quickly curtailed, because the experience of Belarus showed that there would be no benefit from it.

When Russian journalists say that ‘everything is bad’, it seems to me that they do not yet know what is bad. When some media are recognised as ‘foreign agents’, it does not even come close to what is happening now in our country. On the whole, I agree with this assessment. In a few years, the same could happen to Russian media.

AP: I would like to mention technical issues. Where do you get money from if you lose your advertiser? TUT.BY supported itself 100% [via advertising]. Now, at Zerkalo we cannot provide for all our needs from advertising. Here I see a real intersection with what’s happening in Russia. The repression really is stronger in Belarus. We need to come up with some kind of mix of models of existence, when you apply for donations and subscriptions to readers. Then to donors who can support some special projects. And then to advertisers who are not afraid of the status of an ‘extremist’ or ‘foreign agent’.

AK: I will object to Alexandra. The status of a ‘foreign agent’ in Russia can deprive a media of its advertisers, while in Belarus the status of an ‘extremist’ deprives journalists of their freedom.

AP: Considering that mitigations could now be introduced in Russia [presidential press secretary Dmitry Peskov recently suggested that there could be adjustments to Russia’s law on foreign agents], then this is a major difference. And today someone who made a repost from TUT.BY’s Telegram channel received 15 days in prison. It is still difficult to compare these minutiae. You can compare the situation in terms of funding, but some things – such as the imprisonment of readers – are already different.

AK: Listen, in Belarus, journalists are accused of treason and they sit in jail on ridiculous charges.

AP: In Russia, for the time being, journalists who are declared ‘foreign agents’ are not yet being imprisoned. In Belarus, they simply close down media after starting criminal investigations into your finances. They investigate everyone, but it’s these financial cases that are hard to counter. Then you get accused of ‘extremist activity’, and the entire journalism profession is banned.

photo_2021-08-21_20-33-09.max-760x504.jpg
Sonia Groisman, a Russian journalist who has been declared a "foreign agent", protests outside the FSB headquarters in Moscow | CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 Avtozak Live / Telegram.

It seems pointless to compare and measure whether Russian or Belarusian journalists have more problems. Let’s talk about what matters: what is the financial situation for a publication in exile? It doesn’t matter where it is blocked: in Russia, Turkmenistan, Belarus.

AP: Taking into account the fact that we registered a legal entity, these issues affected us. Our large audience helped us set up and launch. We launched donations. We have a subscription service, but it doesn’t cover all of our needs. After we were declared ‘extremists’, donations can be interpreted by the authorities as financing ‘extremist activities’. But many people are leaving Belarus, and moving their businesses abroad. The Belarusian diaspora is growing stronger. It seems to me that this is a good thing, but we still have to calculate how many people have left. This had a positive effect on us, they were able to support us at the start. This is part of our audience. It has survived and is growing dynamically.

We now have a specialist who works with advertisers. He is looking for projects that our audience will support us on. These are companies that operate in the Belarusian market, but are not afraid of politics. There are special projects on behalf of advertisers, we know how to work with them. I cannot say yet that something has already been done, but there is a discussion.

"The first month we worked on a voluntary basis. Everyone came with the resources they had. Or with the help of friends, or received grants. They sat and worked for free"

And the third point is international foundations that support the media. All independent media in Belarus have been repressed. And those remaining media felt it on 8 August this year [when the security forces searched several Belarusian journalists, including TUT.BY employees]. Conferences and events have been in abundance. Everyone is discussing how best to help and restart, [and] how to move outside Belarus. Considering that we have not worked with foundations before and were independent, we do not have precise projects with this kind of funding. But this will be the third source.

At the initial stage, what funds were you using?

AP: Not much money was needed, actually. We were given the existing resources of TUT.BY. You see that Zerkalo looks like TUT.BY. Each team member had enough money to put towards our domain. But we do not hide that the first month we worked on a voluntary basis. Everyone came with the resources they had. Or with the help of friends, or received grants. They sat and worked for free, and when it became possible to pay, they began to receive a salary.

You see, we didn’t just work for money. We have 15 colleagues behind bars. First of all, we wanted to cover the situation of colleagues who should not be forgotten. Now we are already growing, but it took a lot of effort. Some had registered companies abroad before, some had not, but we all needed to reinvent the wheel and learn to do journalism anew.

AK: If this may affect other media in other countries, then our advice to colleagues is to keep the worst case scenario in mind - and leave with the bare minimum.

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A protest in support of Belarusian media workers, September 2020 | (c) ITAR-TASS News Agency / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

How have your ideas about the role of the media in society changed after you left Belarus?

AK: For me, the worst thing is that we would turn into an emigre newspaper. We can do interviews with people who left, tell stories about those who left, [and] communicate with the opposition that remains. But this is all emigre newspaper material. We must work for Belarusians and cover what worries people inside the country. We are trying to remain a Belarusian media with a minimal emigre agenda.

The attitude towards journalism has changed. I used to work for the largest and most successful media outlet in eastern Europe. For all my love for the independent Russian press, for Meduza, for example, their readership was far behind TUT.BY. All major media in Russia lagged behind us. It seemed to us that all journalism should follow the model of TUT.BY. We were put outside the bounds of the law.

We can change, we can stop following dogmas, call Lukashenko a dictator - but we cannot afford it. Our rules are so clear that we are still working according to Belarusian law. We confirm facts, conduct fact-checking, do not permit ourselves offensive attacks, and try to adhere to standards.

Sometimes I think – why should we do this? Isn’t it easier to take the easiest path? But no. No matter how pretentious it may sound, when the only alternative is state propaganda, we must work according to standards so that people can receive reliable and complete information. I only understood this a few weeks ago, it’s a high-sounding mission. We must continue to work in journalistic standards to prove that the state is wrong and we are right and bring the truth to the people.

AP: I am one of those people who reads the comments. We launched them recently, and there is tremendous support there. I was afraid that they would write about the arrests. But we see comments like “I read before and will continue reading”. We also support people who stayed in Belarus. They are not interested in reading what life is like abroad. We have loved ones there. Our heads are still in Belarus. I live in Vilnius and do not read local news – I live in Belarus. Our readers are waiting for us to publish this or that piece of news, so they can check whether it is fake or not. They come to us as the only source of truth

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Protest in Belarus, September 2020 | Public Domain / Jana Shnipelson

You don’t want to be compared to Russian independent media outlet Meduza, which is based in Latvia? Why?

AK: We are constantly asked about comparisons with Meduza in interviews, but they forget that Meduza had other conditions: they calmly chose the country of publication, the concept of the publication, and launched. They were supported, and everyone waited for their launch. We didn’t have that kind of time. We were thrown into the water, we had to swim and keep afloat. If we had had a few months to prepare our departure plan, then everything would be different. I think it would be incorrect to compare us with Meduza.

AP: On the other hand, I like the fact that we are compared with Meduza, despite our differences. Those guys prepared, and they had more time, but there was no room for failure for us, we had to set the bar for comparison. I also reproach myself here: why didn’t we prepare? Probably, we got so relaxed because of the size of our audience, we thought the authorities would not touch us. Apparently, we were not so prepared for this scenario. Now it is clear that you have to keep the worst predictions in mind. For me, now the disconnection of the internet in the country is not the most radical of the possible options and not really a problem.

Who do you learn from in your work? Do you have examples of other media that you are looking at now? After all, we live in a global world where technologies are easily borrowed.

AK: When I worked for TUT.BY, I worked in the news department. The news came out very quickly and efficiently, and if something happened even a minute later, it was frustrating for me. I was very upset when I saw my colleagues working on a case about Belarus. When I saw some special projects, I was disappointed – it was so superficial! You put all this away in your head, remember it, so that you can use it later.

Now I work a lot, monitor sources of information, I can get stuck reading some international media outlets, but I don’t chase what they do – I want us to be the first in Belarus, and so I have plans for three months, for the next few weeks. Although you look and think about what needs to be done in the future. Now, we are just trying to keep ourselves in good shape. Our stupid editorial passion for perfectionism – we try to cover a lot of information. For example, I respect the Russian TASS news agency. I will not talk about how they cover the internal agenda in Russia, but for their work on Belarus – I appreciate and respect them. TASS never crossed the line [into direct propaganda], like RIA Novosti or RT [Russian state media outlets].

"I want to go back to Belarus and get back what was taken from us. I want to prove that while you can block websites, you cannot kill the truth"

Do you watch Belarusian state propaganda?

AK: I look at it for work.

AP: And I look at the statistics for TUT.BY. I look at the readership according to different sections and see that we are now reaching TUT.BY’s old audience figures. It’s a race against yourself. Anya touched upon the feeling of satisfaction a little. Perhaps we want to find ourselves. To become a fully fledged media on a par with TUT.BY. This is what was taken from us.

I’m a PR person, after all. While I was at TUT.BY, I followed lifestyle media. It seemed important to me to add a modern take so that our message could be understood by any audience. That there was cooperation, that there was merchandise our readers could buy. We had a project with the Kupala theater – a fairy tale about Chipolino, they released merchandise for it. It was inspired by other media. I watched how The New York Times launched a sign-up for branded merchandise. This gives me a lot of inspiration for how to work with our audience. I watch what’s going on and try to copy and adapt for us – after all, we have a completely different audience, with different values.

Now, we will launch advertising campaigns for those who might stop working with us due to the name change. I even look at Netflix and Apple TV for some ideas – after all, they make a cool brand for their products.

What are your goals in the near future?

AK: We want to launch a sports section. We [also] really miss the finance section that we used to have, and we are now focused on getting it up and running. And in the plans – I want to go back to Belarus and get back what was taken from us. I want to prove that while you can block websites, you cannot kill the truth.

Is this what will bring you an audience?

AK: Rather a sense of satisfaction. Today Zerkalo is more popular than any state media agency.

AP: I want to regain our title of the largest media in Belarus and pull our guys out. Those are my plans.

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