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Exiled Journalists Take on Corruption, Disinformation

FILE - A Belarusian national flag flutters over a street in Minsk, Belarus, Feb. 16, 2022.
FILE - A Belarusian national flag flutters over a street in Minsk, Belarus, Feb. 16, 2022.

Newsroom raids, a website ban and a team reporting from exile are no obstacle for the independent Belarusian Investigative Center.

Founded in 2018, BIC specializes in news analysis, fighting disinformation and exposing wrongdoing.

Its award-winning journalism has uncovered corruption in the pharmaceutical industry, sanction-breaking exports of petroleum, and shady real estate deals by oligarchs.

In April, BIC became part of the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP).

The global OCCRP network has uncovered some of the biggest stories in recent years, including the Panama Papers leak of documents related to offshore companies, and the Pegasus Project, which exposed widespread surveillance of journalists, dissidents and human rights activists.

In Belarus, the space for independent media shrank in August 2020 when authorities ramped up arrests and harassment of journalists amid protests over President Alexander Lukashenko’s claim of victory in contested elections. Nearly all independent media were labeled as extremist organizations, and their newsrooms were shut down.

During this time, BIC’s offices in the capital, Minsk, were raided, and many of its journalists went into exile. In June 2022, Belarusian authorities blocked access to its website.

Now working predominantly from exile, the team is focused on countering disinformation, including about Russia’s war in Ukraine, and exposing wrongdoing in Belarus.

Olga Ratmirova, head of BIC’s investigative department, spoke with VOA’s Russian Service about the center’s work and how it is adapting to the pressure on Belarusian media.

This interview has been translated and edited for length and clarity.

VOA: What events led to BIC’s investigative team leaving the country?

Ratmirova: I joined the team in 2019, when the Belarusian Investigative Center was just starting. We worked actively for a whole year after the elections, that is, until the summer of 2021. We covered everything that happened: investigations, analytical reports, economic reviews, recorded interviews with insiders.

We left last year when Belarusian authorities began to [target] the media space. Security forces came to [the independent media outlet] and began to arrest journalists. Our studio in Minsk was [raided], and after that, most of our team went abroad. I also left, but I returned to Belarus and worked for a month. But when [authorities] began to detain my closest colleagues, I was evacuated.

VOA: How is BIC reporting from exile?

Ratmirova: After the move, we did not slow down.

We have worked outside Belarus for a year and are safe. But we continue to work on what is happening in our country and are expanding and recruiting. Our team is international, not only from European countries. Over the past year, our audience on all channels —YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, TikTok — has grown. Subscribers come to us. They watch us. We have established a good dialogue with our audience, and at the moment — given the available technologies — we have the opportunity to conduct investigations while abroad.

VOA: Journalism in Belarus is becoming more complex and dangerous. How does BIC collect and verify information?

Ratmirova: As you know, many Belarusian journalists are now in prison, and about 400 of our journalism colleagues were forced to leave. Yes, it is [dangerous], but journalism now is not so complex that it is impossible to know the truth, to confirm and verify information. Belarus is a closed country. Everything related to officials, the work of the state apparatus, budget procurement and other procedures has always been closed.

But at the same time, there are many organizations and people who [find] the necessary information. We actively use databases. Ninety percent of our work is through documents that we verify against OCCRP standards. We have a serious approach. Our lawyers, attorneys and fact-checking specialists take into account every fact while working on the material. And if a fact is not confirmed by two or three sources, we simply do not have the right to talk about it.

VOA: Protests against Belarusian involvement with Russia in its war in Ukraine are suppressed. How important is it to ensure that people know the truth about the current situation?

Ratmirova: The work of Belarusian propaganda is very intense, and it is necessary to be very careful about everything that is happening. We try to give people an objective and unbiased picture. In this case, I would like to talk about the importance of our project Antifake, because everything the project exposes is presented impartially and is cross-checked.

Our employees work with special tools. They find people on video. They receive information from primary sources, conduct several rounds of fact-checking. Everything that we give to our audience, they are happy to watch and to have the opportunity to get an alternative to the Belarusian propaganda and what is written by those who support the position of Belarus. As for the investigations, we are working on how mercenaries from Belarus go to Ukraine to fight on the side of Russia. We are studying this topic and these people.

This interview originated in VOA’s Russian Service.