Journalists in exile tackle corruption and disinformation

Newsroom raids, a website ban and a team reporting from exile are not an obstacle for the Independent Belarusian Investigative Center.

Founded in 2018, BIC specializes in news analysis, the fight against disinformation and the denunciation of wrongdoing.

His award-winning journalism exposed corruption in the pharmaceutical industry, sanctions-busting oil exports and shady real estate deals by the oligarchs.

In April, BIC joined the OCCRP (Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project).

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

In Belarus, space for independent media shrunk in August 2020 as authorities stepped up arrests and harassment of journalists amid protests over President Alexander Lukashenko’s claim of victory in disputed elections. Almost all independent media have been branded as extremist organizations and their newsrooms have been closed.

Meanwhile, BIC offices in the capital, Minsk, have been raided and many of its journalists have gone into exile. In June 2022, Belarusian authorities blocked access to its website.

Now working primarily from exile, the team focuses on countering disinformation, including 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 coping with pressure on Belarusian media.

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

VOA: What events prompted the team of BIC investigators to leave the country?

Ratmirova: I joined the team in 2019, when the Belarusian Investigation Center had just started. We worked actively for a whole year after the elections, that is until the summer of 2021. We covered everything that happened: surveys, analysis reports, economic reviews, recorded interviews with initiates.

We left last year when the Belarusian authorities started to [target] media space. The security forces came [the independent media outlet] TUT.by and started arresting journalists. Our studio in Minsk was [raided], and after that most of our team went overseas. I also left, but returned to Belarus and worked for a month. But when [authorities] started detaining my closest colleagues, I was evacuated.

VOA: How does BIC earn from exile?

Ratmirova: After the move, we didn’t slow down.

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

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

Ratmirova: As you know, many Belarusian journalists are currently in prison and around 400 of our journalist colleagues have been forced to leave. Yes it is [dangerous], but journalism is no longer so complex that it is impossible to know the truth, confirm and verify information. Belarus is a closed country. Everything related to civil servants, the work of the state apparatus, public 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 done through documents that we verify against OCCRP standards. We have a serious approach. Our attorneys, attorneys and fact-checkers consider every fact when working on the material. And if a fact is not confirmed by two or three sources, we simply have no right to talk about it.

VOA: Protests against Belarus’ involvement with Russia in its war in Ukraine are being suppressed. How important is it to make sure people know the truth about the current situation?

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

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

This interview comes from the Russian service of VOA.

About Geraldine Higgins

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