Belarus’ Oldest Outlet Epitomises Struggle for Press Freedom

In one of the world’s most dangerous countries for reporters, mere dissent can lead to years in jail.

Belarus’ Oldest Outlet Epitomises Struggle for Press Freedom

In one of the world’s most dangerous countries for reporters, mere dissent can lead to years in jail.

Nasha Niva, Belarus' oldest newspaper, was banned in November 2021 and declared an extremist formation in January 2022 as part of a continuous crackdown on journalists and government's critics.
Nasha Niva, Belarus' oldest newspaper, was banned in November 2021 and declared an extremist formation in January 2022 as part of a continuous crackdown on journalists and government's critics. © Monica Ellena/IWPR
Friday, 27 January, 2023

Nasta Rouda, the 27-year-old editor of Belarus’ oldest publication Nasha Niva, does not much look like an extremist. However, that is how she is categorised under her country’s repressive media law.  

“I often laugh when I say, “Hi, I am a director of an extremist formation. This is how extremists look like in Belarus,” she told IWPR. “[Since 2020] authorities have intensified their pressure on journalists, going after one media outlet after another. We expected that sooner or later something would be done [against us].”

Nasha Niva, meaning our fields, was outlawed on November 23, 2021 - the 115th anniversary of its founding. The Minsk court ruling, following a request from the ministry of information, was part of the crackdown against journalists that followed the contested presidential elections of August 9, 2020, which handed Alexander Lukashenko a sixth consecutive term.

Lukashenko’s rule has seen freedom of expression under huge pressure. In the World Press Freedom Index, compiled annually by the Paris-based NGO Reporters Without Borders (RSF), Belarus ranks 153 out of 180 countries. Thirty-two journalists remain in custody, serving sentences or awaiting trial, making Belarus one of the world’s worst five countries in terms of the number of jailed reporters. Among them are two Nasha Niva staff members: in July 2021, editor-in-chief Yahor Martsinovich and head of advertisement Andrey Skurko were arrested. In March 2022. they were sentenced to two and-a-half years in prison.

Jeanne Cavelier, head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk, stressed that Belarus had become one of the world’s most dangerous countries for reporters.

“The practice of associating journalism with extremism is neither new nor unique and is mostly used to silence the journalists. This type of despicable pressure is also aimed at discrediting the media in the eyes of their audience,” Cavelier told IWPR, adding that Belarus was following practices in Russia, the country’s principal ally. Belarus has been used as a launch pad for Moscow’s attacks to Ukraine.


Founded in 1906, Nasha Niva is a Belarusian institution. It pioneered the use of Belarusian language, then largely ignored by the intelligentsia, and was pivotal in creating both the idea of statehood and the national literature. Dormant during the Soviet era, it was re-established as Belarus became independent in 1991 and remained a pillar of journalism in the country of nine million.

But under Lukashenko, pressure on Nasha Niva increased, especially after the 2020 vote. In June 8, 2021 access to the website was blocked. The newsroom and employee’s houses were searched and in autumn 2021 all materials published on Nasha Niva’s website and social media were labeled “extremist.” In January 2022, the outlet itself was declared an “extremist formation”. The ruling means that anyone publishing or reposting its materials can face up to seven years in prison.

"It is not about extremism, it is more about dissent."

Nasha Niva’s staff had already left Belarus by then; after the country’s largest journalism platform was targeted in May 2021, they knew they next on the list. The team now works from four different countries.

“It was necessary to enact plan B, when someone would be able to take the responsibility for running the newspaper in exile,” said Rouda, who now lives in Vilnius, Lithuania.

She added, “If I hadn’t left Belarus then, I would most likely be in prison now.”

In 2021, an amendment to the Criminal Code toughened the punishment for the “distribution of false information” on the internet as well as the participation and collaboration with so-called extremist groups. Arbitrary interpretations of extremism are frequently used by the Belarusian authorities to jail opponents and even news consumers. Under a law approved on October 12, 2021, Belarusians subscribing to banned media outlets on social media are themselves defined as extremist and could face up to seven years in prison.

“This will result in criminal liability and the standard of proof in such cases is very low in Belarus; it is enough to accidentally get into the spotlight,” Aliaksei Kazliuk, a lawyer and co-founder of the human rights organisation Human Constanta, told IWPR.

Media or human rights groups can be added to the list of extremist formations purely for expressing dissent.

“Legal concepts in Belarus are often being replaced, as in other authoritarian countries. As for extremism, it is more about dissent than about manifestation of violence. The actions against it have turned into an absolute absurdity in Belarus,” Kazliuk, who lives in exile, said.


Those journalists inside Belarus face huge challenges at every stage of their work.

“People are afraid of speaking and sharing information, even about non-political topics,” Nataliia, a journalist working in Belarus, told IWPR. “Some are afraid to be mentioned even in a positive way: [they wonder] whether it will suddenly attract undesirable attention to them. This leads to the second problem, verifying the information. Verification now takes much longer than before.”

Arrests have become routine, she continued.  

“I worry more for my relatives,” Nataliia said. “There have been cases when the authorities, not having the opportunity to reach out to critics, began to put pressure on their families.”

But for Nasha Niva, as for other Belarusian publications, safety remains a concern even if based abroad. Interviewees and experts from inside Belarus are anonymous as are article bylines. Journalists follow specific rules to protect themselves online, especially on social networks.

“We carefully use photos of people and events, archival images where faces are visible. We remove metadata and make it impossible to understand who took the photo and where,” Rouda explained.

"All you think about is going back home."

Editors replaced a Telegram chat bot with a regular account, where the messages are easier to delete, use an ad-hoc account on ProtonMail for their contacts and changed the website domain to bypass blocking.

“[Safety requirements] in many ways make the work of the media anonymous, in defiance of international standards by which we adhere for so many years. But in today’s Belarus we have no other choice,” Rouda said.

Nash Niva remains a key media player. Last year, its Telegram handle was one of the most popular media channels in Belarusian, with over 500 million views.

But going forward, Rouda said it was hard to make any plans.

"We outlined a scenario for a year, but our plan is very conditional. For example, who can say when the war [in Ukraine] will end? Nobody. The question of whether Belarus will join it or not is also unclear.”

Working in exile is also a challenge as it is more complex to keep the pace with the domestic agenda.

“When you are in the country, you feel what is going in, but when you are outside, you don’t,” the editor continued. “That is why you must not lose contact with the people [in Belarus] and talk to them as often as you can. Psychologically, I made myself believe that all of this is temporary and that we all return soon. You do not think about staying [away] for five or ten years. All you think about is going back home.

This publication was prepared under the "Amplify, Verify, Engage (AVE) Project" implemented with the financial support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Norway.

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