Why Belarus needs an online space of its own

Why Belarus needs an online space of its own

Declaration By the Belarus Media Community Members

Markus Spiske, Unsplash
18.12.2019 Belarus Media Community Members

The recent iSANS report Coercion to “Integration”: Russia’s Creeping Assault on the Sovereignty of Belarus has uncovered a whole Kremlin malign influence network in and around Belarus, aimed at brainwashing its citizens into loyal “Russian world” members. Kremlin propaganda media got important part in this play, having de-facto taken over Belarusian public online space.

Located between NATO countries (Poland, the Baltic states), Ukraine and looming Russia, Belarus under autocratic Aliaksandr Lukashenka had a very peculiar policy for information security – aimed mostly at suppressing and squeezing our independent and Western media. This, together with repressions on civil society, had cleansed the social space welcoming the Russian media as a source of information. It was a trap in which Lukashenka had fallen himself as Kremlin’s imperial aspirations grew, changing Kremlin media narratives into blunt and straight-forward propaganda.

In the last two years Belarus became a separate target for Russian political, financial and media actors. Many media involved in the information attack on Belarus, are sponsored and promoted by “patriotic businessmen”, close to Vladimir Putin or connected, directly or through proxies to, Presidential Administration of Russia.

They readily replicate fake news and disinformation about Belarus, denying Belarusian history and language, denying Belarus ability to survive and preserve its sovereignity without Russia and Union State.

Kremlin spending for its propaganda outlets is increasing each year, leaving next to no chances for their Belarusian competitors, weakened by domestic restrictive policies.

Russian media is always on top of international search engines and news services, as online communications giants see this former Soviet Republic as one with Russia because of the Russian language use. Situation is exacerbated by the small percentage of Belarusian language content, which is ignored by the corporations. Belarusian users number is too small, in the view of big businesses, to bother with geographic localization of the services, while Russian language or bi-linguality conveniently prompt to put them in the Russian basket.

Belarus lacks legislation of its own, unlike in Ukraine, providing for localization of content and services by Google, Opera, Microsoft and Apple. There, despite the Russian language use, the audience while using the search engines and new services, would first get Russian versions of the Ukrainian media, and only after would be listed the Russian media.

In the absence of the state will and competence Belarusian media and public decided to act autonomously, adopting a declaration, demanding that the corporations would finally see and address the issue of localizing Belarusian online space.

Belarusian localized online media space is, first and foremost it is about security and building public resilience through support of local Belarusian media, giving a priority to Belarusian independent information sources, making Russian media less influential through purely technical means.

Good will by the Western business giants to give Belarusians their own media space would contribute to building resilience to the Kremlin malign influence in Eastern Europe, in the country which is on the front line of the Kremlin’s hybrid warfare on West.

Declaration
By the Belarus Media Community Members

On the need for geographical localization of internet services and the recognition of the Belarusian segment of the internet as a separate market

What we seek:

the recognition of Belarus as a separate market and geographical localization of services by global internet corporations.

Explainer:

News recommendation services have become a visible trend among products offered by global internet corporations in the past few years. The launch of news aggregators based on recommendation algorithms has had a significant impact on the Belarusian media market.

Now, corporations do not take into account country specificity and tend to ignore the need for serving geo-referenced content to the country where it comes from.

The absence of fully functional geotargeting for the country creates unequal conditions for journalists in Belarus compared to their colleagues in Russia, Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia and Poland. Internet corporations do not treat Belarus as a separate country; instead they place Belarusian users into the general Russian-speaking segment or localize the content only partially. This makes the internal media market weaker and hinders its full development.

Internet corporations’ unwillingness to offer services localized for Belarus does not comply with the Information Security Concept adopted in Belarus in March 2019. It has a direct impact on Belarus’ information sector and violates our country’s information sovereignty.

By no means does the localization of services by the world’s biggest internet corporations violate the constitutional right of citizens to seek, receive, transfer, produce, keep and impart information. It only strengthens the national media market and keeps Belarus’ information space open for foreign media and internet resources.

We believe the content created by Belarusian media can better meet expectations of Belarusian users from recommendation services. Thus, the localization of such services will also be beneficial for their owners who can offer a better user experience to their customers.

We call on our colleagues, the public, representatives of corporations, as well as the Ministry of Information of Belarus, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Belarus and other related government institutions to address the issue of content localization and facilitate positive changes in what concerns the interaction between Belarusian media and global recommendation services.

We believe Belarus should be a fully independent country on the global internet map.

Our actions:

We would like to discuss content localization at IGF (Internet Governance Forum) in Minsk on November 19, 2019. After the discussion, we propose to urge Google, Yandex, Mail.ru, Opera, Microsoft, Apple and other corporations to take into account the needs of the Belarusian market and make every effort to address the issue.

Our address will include the following mutually non-exclusive proposals:

To identify Belarus as a separate region in terms of consuming news and other information content, as well as to separate the Belarusian agenda from news of neighboring Russian-speaking countries;
To prioritize Belarusian media when ranking information sources in recommendation systems for users who choose Belarus as their primary region.

Signatories:

  • Maryna Zolatava, editor-in-chief of TUT.BY
  • Mikalai Kazlovich, editor-in-chief of ONLINER.BY
  • Iryna Leushyna, editor-in-chief of BelaPAN
  • Siarhei Sakharau, editor-in-chief of CityDog.by
  • Yahor Martsinovich Егор Мартинович, editor-in-chief of NN.by
  • Anastasia Rahatka, editor-in-chief of KYKY.org
  • Pavel Sviardlou, editor-in-chief of Euroradio.by
  • Fyodar Pauluchenka, editor-in-chief of reform.by, iSANS media coordinator
  • Yulia Slutskaya, founder of Press Club Belarus
  • Andrei Bastunets, Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ) head
  • Francišak Viačorka, vice president of Digital Communication Network
  • Anton Motolko, blogger, activist, iSANS new media coordinator
  • Ala Sharko, deputy director at Press Club Belarus