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‘The caravan goes on’ Meduza talks to the Tut.by team about launching a new media outlet while their colleagues sit in jail

Source: Meduza
Beata Zawrzel / NurPhoto / Shutterstock / Vida Press

In the face of pressure from the authorities, the most prominent independent media outlet in Belarus, Tut.by, ceased operating in mid-May. On top of blocking Tut.by’s website and freezing its company bank account, the Belarusian authorities detained a number of its staff and initiated a felony tax evasion case against the publication’s leadership. Despite the persecution, some of Tut.by’s journalists and managers were able to flee Belarus. Now they’re spread out around the world, living in countries from Ukraine to the United States. On July 8, the Tut.by team launched a new media outlet — Zerkalo.io — to hold their publication’s place until it can resume working in Belarus. To find out more about this new venture, Meduza spoke to Zerkalo.io’s acting editor-in-chief, Anna Kaltygina, and manager Sasha Pushkina. All of the outlet’s other employees preferred not to reveal their identities for security reasons. 

Anna Kaltygina

Acting editor-in-chief of Zerkalo.io and former Tut.by editor

Work on creating Zerkalo.io has been going on for the last two weeks. But my editor-in-chief, Maryna Zolatava, and I have been considering different options since August of last year. We expected something bad to happen to us [Tut.by]. Although we didn’t think it would be as bad as what’s happening now. 

To be honest, in the beginning we still had hopes that they would unblock Tut.by. But time went on and nothing changed, everything got worse. Working only on social media like we did after getting blocked is good, of course, but it’s not our format. For both me personally and our readers there weren’t enough analytical pieces and longreads. Two weeks ago, through a democratic vote [among Tut.by’s staff], we decided to make a new media outlet. There are fewer and fewer independent media outlets in Belarus, so a new one needs to be launched. Particularly when there’s no time to lose.

We’re all abroad now. I was one of the first [among Tut.by’s staff] to leave Belarus. On May 18, they [law enforcement] arrived at many of our homes, and the next day I passed a PCR test [for COVID-19] and left immediately. It was only a matter of time before they would come for the rest of the editors. Some left afterwards, others left only recently. We’re scattered in different countries. But for a year and a half we’ve learned to work remotely. Now we’re working in the same fashion as during the pandemic. 

Tut.by’s editorial office had around 60 full-time people, now there’s only 20 of us. We’re no longer specialists. For example, before, a person would only work on politics, but now he works on politics and the economy, he might do an interview or write an article. We’ll return to narrow specializations later.

Right now I’m formally the acting editor-in-chief. We decided that there can only be one editor-in-chief — that’s Maryna Zolatava. But Zerkalo.io actually has three main editors: one who works on long-form articles, one who handles the news, and one who deals with organizational issues. When everything is up and running perhaps these functions will be transferred to a single person. But for now, we have a three-headed editorial hydra.

Zerkalo.io was blocked in Belarus before it was launched. It was an urgent decision from the Information Ministry. It’s unclear on what grounds — it’s a new publication, it’s fresh, there’s no news that can be classified as extremist. But they can’t do to Zerkalo.io what they did to Tut.by. They blocked Tut.by in Belarus and its servers were physically taken away — they took everything away. Tut.by was also under the domain [for Belarus], by. Plus, every Belarusian over the age of ten knows what a VPN is — there’s not much to read or watch without one.

As much as our security forces boast, it would probably be difficult for them to travel to all [these] countries and catch us. But we’re ready to be blocked or added to some list of “extremists.” This is a common risk. We know what will happen and we’re calm about it. The dog barks, but the caravan goes on. 

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Sasha Pushkina 

Manager of Zerkalo.io and former Tut.by PR manager

The most logical thing we could do when they blocked Tut.by was to launch a “mirror” site. But, unfortunately, we received a letter from the Interior Ministry about Tut.by’s materials being recognized as extremist. It didn’t say what would be recognized as extremist or how it would happen. We didn’t understand if a specific article would be recognized as extremist and this would threaten its authors or if all Tut.by products would be banned and then even more people would be in danger. 

After the raids it was decided that most people would quit Tut.by and find new jobs. The portal’s owners and shareholders are focused on resolving the Tut.by case in the courts, liquidating the company, and helping the staff who remained in Belarus. Those employees who had criminal cases opened against them are sitting in pre-trial detention. From their most recent letters we see that they are in good spirits, they read a lot. But it’s not clear what’s going to happen to them. They could be released, but we’re not getting our hopes up.

The active portion of the editorial office, who kept working after May 18, are still producing content. Now we make all decisions together. We welcome the principle of voting, which we are deprived of in Belarus. We use it a bit too actively in our group chat.

So far, we’re learning how to run a new media outlet together. We want to give people the opportunity to read news at the level of Tut.by — after all, it’s the same team working according to the same principles. But so far, we have only two people who are willing to say openly that they work for Zerkalo.io. I’m not saying that we’re so brave, it’s just that a completely impersonal media outlet doesn’t have the same level of trust. 

Now we’re living on what we set aside before. Some are getting help from their parents and friends. But we’re developing a monetization system. Before, Tut.by fully existed on money from advertising, so it’s a little unusual for us to approach this issue from other angles. We’re trying to come up with something. It’s probably rather dangerous for advertisers from Belarus to approach us, but there are [foreign companies] that are interested in being visible on the Belarusian market and want to support Tut.by. Everything isn’t settled yet when it comes to donations, but we have a specialist working on this. We’ll explain how you can support us soon. 

We get the strength to keep working from our people who are behind bars. And from Belarusians in general, who are effectively in the same place — although they’re simply living in our country. As well as from the more than 500 political prisoners in Belarus.

When you’re left alone with yourself and what’s happening, depression sets in. But as long as there’s such work you believe that everything could be fine. When you can’t help get people out of jail, you want to do your job as well as possible. Taking into account the pressure on independent journalism, we understand that we need to continue writing for Belarus — otherwise, we wouldn’t be under so much pressure. The more pressure, the more resistance. And we will continue. 

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Interviews by Alexandra Sivtsova

Abridged translation by Eilish Hart

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