For ideological outliers in the former eastern bloc, samizdat, or self-publishing, used to be the sole way to distribute works which were likely to be censored. In today’s digital age, the diversity of ideas and information available online is incomparable to that of the past. With diplomatic ties between east and west increasingly fraught, the internet has again become a battleground for ideas, and censorship — once a thing confined to traditional media — is back and online. This hasn’t stopped an array of new independent initiatives springing up online. Regardless of whether offices are relocated in exile or access is only granted through proxy servers, the internet in the new east is home to a plethora of creative new projects. We’ve assembled a selection of the region’s best and most innovative independent online projects from Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, Bosnia, Serbia, Russia, Belarus and Ukraine.
Boasting the full gamut of independent online media outlets, Georgia has one of the freest and most diverse media landscapes in the region. While the country's constitution protects press freedom to an extent, providing fertile ground for new digital projects, weak restrictions on ownership mean that much of the mainstream media is monopolised by ruling elites or different political groups. Nevertheless, with broad plurality generally tolerated in the media, the internet has become the stomping ground for many with different agendas, from video-sharing and creative projects to political activism.
With video-sharing the most popular form of user-generated content in Georgia, the country’s first video portal, MyVideo, is the most popular video-posting website in the country. Now offering live streaming and on-demand video from a number of the most popular channels in the country, Georgia’s answer to YouTube has altered the way in which television content there is consumed.
One of the most influential weekly magazines in Georgia, Liberali was launched in 2009 with the financial support of the Open Society Foundation and is known for its sharp criticism of the government. Existing both online and in print, the independent weekly publishes in-depth reportage, analytical articles and investigative journalism, providing a platform for debate on current affairs. However, sponsorship problems have almost cost Liberali its future, as advertisers in Georgia remain reluctant to cooperate with media outlets known for their critical views of the government.
Retro magazines, alternative film blogs and literary journals have come to characterise the growth of online media in Bosnia. With numerous partisan news organisations still used to stoke ethnic tensions, the growth of Bosnia’s niche online projects provide a welcome counterpoint to a media landscape still rocked by the war in the 1990s. Often shying away from explicitly addressing the legacy of war, many of Bosnia’s digital projects use the arts as a means of celebrating cultural and artistic currents. From film websites like filmofil to retro blogs like Yugopapir, the cultural heritage of the region is being brought back to life again, showing that there’s more to Bosnia than politics and war.
Set up by a devotee of retro media, Yugopapir brings print and film artefacts from Yugoslavia’s past back to life in digitalised form. With a homepage replete with stills from old movies, newspaper clippings and black-and-white photos, Yugopapir looks fondly at a past often underrepresented. While steering clear of explicit commentary on the politics of the past, the blog was launched as a “useful reminder of the achievements that have been made possible thanks to understanding, tolerance and the common interests of the people living in the region”.
On the face of it, Ukraine’s media landscape appears to have many of the characteristics of its neighbouring counterparts: television stations monopolised by the state; newly introduced legislation seeking to silence independent voices; and the selling off of remaining bastions of non-state press to oligarchs. Nevertheless, while the money and power of oligarchs has largely kept mainstream media in the clutches of the ruling elite, the internet has largely remained off the government’s radar. And it shows. From exposing misinformation circulating in the information sphere, to naming and shaming corrupt politicians, the internet in Ukraine has become a platform for brave new projects seeking to address major issues in a country in the midst of change.
Created by Yevhen Fedchenko, director of journalism at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, and a group of his students, StopFake is a website committed to debunking invented news and misattributed photos and videos about Ukraine emerging, often from Russia. Engaging the public in its quest, the website has a “Report a Fake” button at the top of the page. StopFake has raised over $8,000 in donations through crowdsourcing, with over 30% of its donations coming from Russia.
When new legislation was passed in Ukraine’s government in January 2014 making it illegal for journalists to criticise law enforcement agencies, the 239 MPs who voted in favour of the law were added to a blacklist drawn up by a consortium of independent investigative journalists. This boldness to expose corrupt practices and name those responsible for curtailing free expression — a defining characteristic of Ukraine’s thriving investigative journalism — is reflected in anti-corruption website Corrupt UA. One of several online projects set up by journalists and NGOs to tackle malfeasance, Corrupt UA exposes misconduct in Ukrainian social and political infrastructure, exposing anything from bribery in government and shady practices in pharmaceutical companies to misconduct in pension reform.
The media landscape in Russia has undergone major changes in the last year. With new laws on extremism and blogging being used to weaken opposition voices online, the internet has become an increasingly restricted zone; social media sites like Facebook and Twitter have coming under pressure from media watchdog Roskomnadzor to hand over user data for those considered to be “oppositionist”.
But this hasn’t stopped a host of journalists from launching an array of niche and mainstream online projects. Whether it’s a news service distributed by an app, banned cult websites accessible only through proxy servers, or satirical blogs, the Russian internet isn’t going to surrender without a fight.
When Galina Timchenko, editor-in-chief of news website Lenta.ru, was fired last year by the site’s owner over coverage of the Ukraine crisis, nearly 80 Lenta journalists resigned the same day in protest. Months later, from a bare office in Riga, Latvia, a team of around 15 journalists headed by Timchenko launched the Meduza Project — a Russian-language news aggregator providing an independent perspective on events around the world, and in particular, Russia. Wise to the methods used by the Kremlin to block websites, the Meduza team also launched an app, which, as there is no practical way of banning apps, almost guarantees its unfettered distribution in Russian territory.
Originally launched in 2013 as a geek-friendly blog about new software and apps, Apparat was rebranded as “an open platform for social activists to discuss the freedom of the internet” a year later. The website has been reporting extensively on the Silk Road trial, hacktivist collective Anonymous and the Edward Snowden revelations. Despite launching with no financial backing, Apparat is thriving as "a magazine about a new society", with its founder Artem Ignatyev currently working to monetise the project.
After being blocked in February 2014, Looo.ch is now only accessible in Russia via proxy servers. Run from a base in New York by its co-founder, the Ukrainian art critic Anatoly Ulyanov, Looo.ch was launched in reaction “to the crisis of modern culture” — the wave of social conservatism — sweeping Russia. Facebook banned Looo.ch’s page due to its “inappropriate visual content”, which runs anywhere from outrageous to extreme. Its uncompromising and radical anti-homophobic stance is thought to be behind its blocking in Russia, according to Ulyanov, whose total impatience with traditional culture is reflected in this provocative “anti-culture” website.
An example of a one-man media brand, Oleg Kashin is an institution in Russia. A prolific journalist and blogger, Kashin made his name as a reporter for business daily Kommersant and made headlines after he was brutally attacked in 2010, an event that many linked to his coverage of anti-Kremlin movements. Now covering practically all major political news, Kashin, who is based in Switzerland, publishes comment pieces almost daily on his blog — Kashin.guru and is a mainstay for Russia’s liberal elite.
Out of the five Central Asian countries, Kyrgyzstan enjoys the freest media landscape, with censorship levels relatively low compared to those of its neighbours. Since the revolution in 2010 which toppled president Kurmanbek Bakiev, Kyrgyz print media, internet platforms and TV stations have enjoyed a new wave of freedom and innovation. While some restrictive measures remain in place, a general shift towards the liberalisation of the media has provided fertile ground for citizen journalism and online projects geared towards educating a new generation of journalists in the country.
Founded in 2006, Kloop is one of Kyrgyzstan’s leading blog networks. Part of the Kloop Media Foundation, a pro-democracy educational organisation which teaches aspiring journalists, Kloop is a well-known defender of free press and liberal values in Kyrgyzstan. Kloop has made enemies over its ten years, taking aim at corruption in the region and giving a voice to the plight of Kyrgyzstan’s LGBT community.
Often dubbed “Europe’s last dictatorship”, Belarus doesn’t have the best track record for free press. A combination of restrictive media laws, politicised criminal prosecutions and raids on newspaper offices has meant little hope for free information circulating via traditional media. But Belarusians have found another way, with the internet providing the answer for a generation of young journalists who’ve harnessed the relative freedom of the online sphere to create innovative media projects.
Stereotypes depicting Belarus as a still-grey country behind an iron curtain are dispelled by CityDog, Minsk’s hipster city guide. A hybrid between Russia’s popular culture website Afisha and St Petersburg-focused The Village, CityDog fills a niche for those who want to discover Minsk’s young and creative scene. Its glossy photos, event listings, and focus on urban youth culture has landed the mag in the top ten most visited internet portals in Belarus.
Produced by Belarus’s only non-state newswire, BelaPan, Naviny satisfies a hunger for independent, straight news coverage. It was one of several websites blocked in December 2014, after the government ordered an independent media blackout to stem currency panic following the rouble collapse late last year. Yet, Naviny is the fourth most read online news source in the country, posting news in Belarusian and Russian in a variety of formats, including bulletins, infographics and mixed-media.
When the Belarusian-language youth print magazine Studentskaya Dumka (Students’ Thought) was shut down in 2005, the editorial team had to rethink its strategy. Within months, their team came back with 34mag, a digital magazine focused on youth culture. Its young team is responsible for pioneering multimedia projects and rethinking ways of communicating in spite of censorship. With a strong visual focus, the articles and photo stories on the site cover anything from current affairs to important cultural events, both in Russian and English.
Commercial platforms-turned-news websites are on the rise in Belarus. Tut.by started out as an online forum offering e-shopping and news aggregation, but over time the site has earned a reputation as a reliable generator of original content. Featuring breaking news and quirky features on anything from homemade Soviet cars to the revival of the Belarusian language, Tut.by is now a staple for Belarusians in search of independent information.
In 2011, Charter97’s editor-in-chief spent three months in prison after the pro-democracy site posted details of the arrest of anti-government protesters. Most of the site’s journalists fled the country for fear of further reprisals. Despite now having an editorial office in exile, Charter97 continues to post news focusing on Belarus’s human rights developments and is considered the major force attempting to lay the groundwork for democratic movements in the country.
Like most countries in the Balkans, digital media in Serbia has been slow to gain national prominence. With broadband internet still concentrated in urban areas, traditional media still dominates across large swathes of rural Serbia. Nevertheless, with the internet increasingly accessible across the country, the number of political and cultural online projects is on the rise. Online media projects — from sharp satirical magazines to investigative reporting — have thrived, serving as a model for similar projects across the wider region.
Since its launch in 2010, the editorial team at Serbian online magazine Njus has been busy covering the most curious events around the globe. Only, the stories aren’t real. Inspired by publications like Private Eye and the Onion, the satirical magazine has become popular for its outlandish stories featuring public figures often in Serbia’s mainstream media. Receiving financial support from the Norwegian embassy in Belgrade, Njus has managed to maintain its political independence from the government and to inspire similar magazines in other countries in the region, including news-bar.hr in Croatia, balkantajms.com in Bosnia and brejking.net in Macedonia. In 2013, Njus became a multimedia resource, launching a TV show called 24 minuta, a Serbian remake of US political satire programme The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.