The Belarusian opposition channel, funded by Warsaw, is worried about its subsidies at a time when the Polish government is relying on the warming of its relations with Minsk.
At a time when Russia is increasing its media presence in Europe and the United States, Belsat TV, the only independent Belarusian news channel, is at the forefront of the information war between the Kremlin and Western democracies.
Informing citizens of the “last dictatorship in Europe”, a country where Russian interests are omnipresent, is no easy task. Especially with an annual budget of only 6 million euros, when influential bodies like Russia Today or Sputnik are backed up by 280 million euros a year by the Kremlin.
Belsat is financed entirely by the Polish government and has been broadcasting via saellite from Warsaw since its creation in 2008. But the fate of the editorial team and its 200 collaborators is uncertain. In December 2016, the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced, to the general amazement, that it planned to drastically cut subsidies to the network, which would de facto mean its disappearance. The current ultraconservative government in Warsaw seems to rely on a warming of relations with the strong man of Minsk, Alyaksandr Lukashenka.
Faced with a major upheaval on the part of the Belarusian intellectuals, the Polish opposition, and also within its own camp, the Polish government has backtracked. In early January, Prime Minister Beata Szydlo assured that funding for the channel “was not threatened”. Polish Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski said the government is working on a “new formula” for Belsat TV.
But these changes have disturbed journalists. “The balance of the chain’s work is precarious. Even a slight cut in our budget would considerably destabilize the broadcasts,” explains its director, Agnieszka Romaszewska.
Belsat TV remains a unique television station: journalists working in Belarus operate in total secrecy. A significant part of the TV station budget is legal expenses. Despite these difficult conditions, journalists produce three hours of information daily. Belsat is also the only TV station in the country to broadcast exclusively in the Belarusian language, which has long been threatened by the policy of Russification in Belarus.
“This decision would be all the more incomprehensible given the certain improvement in our working conditions for some time now,” says Aleksy Dzikawicki, the Director of Information and Programs at Belsat. Lukashenka is afraid of a repetition of the Ukrainian scenario in Belarus, and after years of pro-Russian politics he launched a more patriotic move to strengthen the sense of national identity. From this point of view, our presence angers him. We are also the only ones to openly criticize Russia, which he cannot allow”.
The critics of the channel claim that it has a marginal audience and a low quality of programs. “We are doing what we can with the budget we have,” says editor-in-chief Ales Karniyenka. We have a significant impact, especially in the regions where only the satellite is accessible; 90 per cent of Belarusians are exclusively informed via television and all other Belarusian channels are owned by the state”.
Belsat journalists say they have an “excellent feedback” from their viewers. “We are actively fighting against Russian propaganda, especially on the Internet, and we are convinced that our work is needed,” said Jakub Biernat, Belsat web editor. The Belsat TV website has developed an information strategy in Russian to influence all former Soviet republics.
At a time when the European institutions are becoming aware of the need to actively fight against the misleading information policy of the Kremlin, Belsat’s ongoing activities seem vital.