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Belarusian opposition leader: Exiled media needs our help now, more than ever



Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya is is the leader of democratic Belarus.

The Belarus village of Vyazynka is best known as the birthplace of Yanka Kupala, one of our greatest poets. More recently, however, it was featured in a depressing report by human rights activists monitoring the tyranny of Alexander Lukashenko, the country’s despot whose efforts to silence dissent are growing more desperate by the day.

Arrested for taking part in an unauthorized political demonstration, a Vyazynka resident was taken to a local detention center, where he was forced to stand and watch Lukashenko speeches playing continuously on a television monitor 10 hours a night, for three successive nights.

If only Lukashenko could restrict himself to such childish and futile punishments — but instead, he has launched an all-out assault on freedom of speech. According to Reporters Without Borders, Belarus has now become “one of the most dangerous countries for journalists in the world.”


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But while the democratic Belarusian media has remained a prime target for Lukashenko’s retribution, even in exile, they continue to investigate his regime, inspiring thousands to continue the fight.

As the democratic leader of Belarus — whose victory in the 2020 presidential election was illegally overturned by Lukashenko — I’ve been subject to his vicious persecution myself. Threats to my life and my children forced me to flee into exile, and today —January 17, 2023 — marks the start of my trial in absentia in a Minsk court, facing a long list of bogus charges including treason against the state, inciting mass riots and conspiring to seize power.

Well, perhaps that last part is true.

I conspired with millions of Belarusian voters to seize democratic power from a dictator who has turned our country into a vassal state of President Vladimir Putin’s Russia. I only became a presidential candidate because Lukashenko’s secret police locked up my husband, Siarhai, for daring to oppose him. And now I find myself fighting to rally our country’s democrats in the face of unprecedented efforts to silence them.

It was in May 2021 that the rest of the world caught its first real glimpse of the lengths to which Lukashenko was prepared to go in his campaign against journalists. A Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius was forcibly diverted to Minsk, after Belarusian agents faked reports of a bomb threat.

On board the flight was Roman Pratasevich, a dissident Belarus reporter, who had gone into exile to escape arrest. Pratasevich and his Russian girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, were escorted off the plane and detained. But international outcry at this state-sponsored hijacking still failed to secure the release of the two passengers.

Sapega was eventually sentenced to six years in jail on nonsensical charges. The fate of Pratasevich remains unknown. He was released under house arrest, made several confessions that appeared to have been extracted through torture or threats, and has not been heard from in several months.

Since then, the democratic media in Belarus has stayed in Lukashenko’s crosshairs.

Just a few days ago, five extraordinary women who played key roles at — one of the country’s most popular news websites — were put on trial behind closed doors, on a long list of trumped-up charges ranging from tax evasion to “incitement of social hatred and discord.” Liudmila Chekina, the group’s chief executive, and editor-in-chief Maryna Zolatava have already spent 20 months in jail. Both are now suffering from serious ill health.

Absurdly, the Belarus KGB listed these journalists as “persons involved in terrorist activities.” But’s real “offense” was its diverse coverage of local and international affairs, including critical commentaries on the criminal overturning of the 2020 election.

Meanwhile, almost all other independent media in the country has been designated as “extremist” and forced to shut down or flee. The Belarusian Association of Journalists calculates that over 400 journalists have left the country in the past few years. And at least 33 media workers are behind bars, with Belarus ranking below China, Myanmar, Vietnam and Iran as the world’s most enthusiastic jailer of journalists.

In some cases, imprisoned Belarus journalists whose initial sentences expired have been sentenced to new terms before their release. Just last year, Katsiaryna Andreyeva, a correspondent with Belsat TV, was about to complete a two-year sentence for reporting on the 2020 election protests, when a court sentenced her to another eight years for “giving away state secrets.”

Even those who publicly quit journalism and fell silent were pursued for supposed offenses. Another Belsat TV reporter, Larysa Shchyrakova, was fined for “co-operating with a foreign media outlet” in 2018 and subjected to repeat arrests and harassment. She announced that she was leaving journalism last February and published no further work, yet she was still arrested in December on charges of “discrediting” Belarus. The few truly independent journalists who still work in the country now do so anonymously — and at great risk to themselves and their families.

Putin has unleashed havoc across the border in Ukraine with Lukashenko’s help. The vast majority of my people are horrified by what is happening to our neighbor, and we understand why the plight of our independent media sometimes escapes attention. But it is a mistake to allow Lukashenko free rein to smother dissent.

And it isn’t just the people of Belarus who are suffering from his narcissistic excess — his support of Putin is crucial to Russia’s strategy in Ukraine. As long as Lukashenko barks like a Russian lapdog, Ukraine’s struggle for freedom will be much harder.

One way the rest of the world can help now is by supporting the exiled Belarus media. I am meeting global business leaders at Davos this week and urging them to support independent Belarusian newspapers, digital outlets, radio stations and television channels with advertising and subscription revenues. An independent media is the lifeblood of democracy, and it is crucial that Belarus citizens have access to the facts. The alternative is torture — hours of Lukashenko propaganda aired repeatedly on state media.

I look forward to the day when true media freedom finally returns to my country. As Kupala once wrote: “Send messengers forth, send unto the world’s bound/ As falcon from falcon’s nest winging/ Let them fly, fly away until warriors sound/ Set the thunder of good news ringing.”


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Vancouver woman wins identity fraud fight with Bell Mobility after posting on social media



It’s been four blissfully quiet days since Erica Phillips last heard from the collection agencies ringing her two or three times daily for months, demanding payment of hundreds of dollars owed on a Bell Mobility account with her name on it that she never opened.

“It’s a huge sense of relief,” she said. “It’s so nice knowing that this won’t continue being a daily reminder of something that shouldn’t have been my problem to begin with.”

The Vancouver woman says she has been fighting the company for more than two years with little response, submitting documents supporting that the account was fraudulently opened using her name while at the same time filing reports with police, credit agencies and the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre.

She says relief from the collection calls only came after she contacted news outlets and posted about her frustrations on social media.


“I took all of the correct avenues,” she said. “I didn’t want to make myself public but I felt like I was forced to,” she said.

Phillips’ ordeal started in 2020 when she received notices mailed to an old address from both Rogers and Bell Mobility that said she owed money. She says she had never been a client of either company, so she thought they were a phishing scam. Further investigation found that identity fraudsters had used her personal information to open the accounts in her name.

She says Rogers took quick action to cancel the account when she contacted them, but Bell Mobility did not.

“That’s what seemed so insane to me at the beginning, that it was so easily taken care of with one of the companies and then not at all with the other,” said Phillips.

In an emailed statement, Bell Mobility told CBC:

“We have conducted an investigation and have determined that this account was fraudulent. We are attempting to contact the client and have advised our affiliated credit agencies of the billing error.”

The Consumer Protection B.C. website has information on how to prevent identity theft. It also has forms and advice for individuals who are being pursued by a company or collection agency for a debt that is not theirs.

Identity fraud and identity theft are criminal offences, but have become lucrative thanks to the growth of technology, according to the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada.

In 2021, the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre issued an alert after a spike in identity fraud reporting.

“Fraudsters are using personal information about Canadians to apply for government benefits, credit cards, bank accounts, cellphone accounts or even take over social media and email accounts,” it said.

Phillips says in just one night her social media post received more than 100,000 views. She’s been surprised by the number of people who have reached out to her to say they too have been victims of identity fraud.

“It’s unbelievable the comments that I’m getting on all of the various stories now of people in similar situations,” she said. “It’s crazy.”

She says Bell Mobility has not apologized.


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Lawler pays tribute to Edmonton on social media, says goodbye to Elks ahead of CFL free agency



He was the Edmonton Elks’ superstar free agent signing last year, but with one week to go until the next CFL free agency period begins, receiver Kenny Lawler announced on social media that he plans to leave Alberta’s capital.

“Thank you so much for allowing me to represent this city and this amazing organization,” the 28-year-old football player said in an Instagram post on Tuesday. He said his family was grateful for their brief time in the city.

“Everyone we crossed paths with helped make this transition easy as possible for us.”

Ottawa Redblacks Patrick Levels (3) tackles Edmonton Elks Kenny Lawler (89) during first half CFL action in Edmonton, Alta., on Saturday August 27, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson.

Last off-season, the Elks signed Lawler to a one-year contract worth a reported $300,000, making him the highest paid player in the CFL who was not a quarterback.

Citing an anonymous source, The Canadian Press reported Tuesday that the receiver who hails from California has agreed to a deal in principle with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

CFL contracts cannot officially be agreed to until Feb. 14, when free agency officially begins. However, once the reported two-year deal is officially announced, it would mark Lawler’s return to Manitoba where he began his electrifying CFL career in 2019.

While playing for Winnipeg, Lawler helped the Bombers win Grey Cups in 2019 and 2021. In his only season with the Elks, Lawler managed to tally 58 catches for 894 yards and five touchdowns before undergoing season-ending shoulder surgery.

The 2022 season for the Elks was a difficult one. The club went 4-14 as it continues to rebuild since losing key players like quarterback Mike Reilly in 2019. Lawler said despite the challenging season with the Green and Gold, he was grateful for the competitive spirit the coaching staff maintained.

“Though we fell short, you all were never compromised in getting us to settle for nothing less than the goal we set out to achieve,” Lawler said, adding he will miss the teammates he played with and that he has “gained relationships this year that I know will last a lifetime.”

–With files from Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press


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Media braces for the robot era



The rapid rise of generative AI tools like ChatGPT could displace dozens of media companies if they don’t move quickly to adapt to a new internet reality.

Why it matters: Facebook’s many pivots pushed media outlets to move their focus away from social media and toward search — but now experts predict another major disruption for publishers relying on search traffic.

“It’s an undoing of the robotic behavior with which we were already committing journalism, because it’s questionable whether writing about National Donut Day really served anybody,” said S. Mitra Kalita, a former CNN executive who has co-founded two new local media companies, Epicenter NYC and URL Media.

  • “In some ways, the work we were doing towards optimizing for SEO and trending content was robotic. Arguably, we were using what was trending on Twitter and Google to create the news agenda. What happened was a sameness across the internet.”

Driving the news: BuzzFeed last week said it is using OpenAI’s publicly available software, which is similar to the popular generative text site ChatGPT, to automatically publish quizzes, beginning this month.

  • “To be clear, we see the breakthroughs in AI opening up a new era of creativity that will allow humans to harness creativity in new ways with endless opportunities and applications for good,” the company’s CEO, Jonah Peretti, said in a memo to staffers.

BuzzFeed doesn’t plan to use AI to write journalistic articles, which seems to be a line that most publishers aren’t eager to cross.

  • But figuring out the right balance when using AI won’t be easy, as was made obvious by CNET’s AI mea culpa last month.
  • The CEO of Dotdash Meredith, a rival to CNET’s parent Red Ventures, told Axios last month that the firm “will never have an article written by a machine,” but it has already begun to bake AI into many of its workflows, like sourcing images.

Be smart: The past few years gave rise to a slew of successful digital media companies that focused on monetizing search traffic, while social media-reliant publishers struggled to adapt.

  • But the content that has done well on search, such as evergreen articles that help people answer questions or provide recommendations, is poised to be challenged by artificial intelligence.
  • “The most immediate impact of AI is probably that it becomes an efficiency tool,” said Brian Morrissey, former president and editor-in-chief of Digiday and author of a Substack newsletter on media called The Rebooting.

The big picture: Decades of constant pivots at the hands of Big Tech firms had media executives losing sight of which audiences they aimed to serve to begin with, Kalita noted.

  • ABC chief legal correspondent and media entrepreneur Dan Abrams said his media industry news site Mediaite began seeing record engagement once it started to push away from social media and search distribution.
  • The thinking has changed from “find the SEO angle” or “find the Facebook angle” to “find the Mediaite angle, and a large, loyal audience has followed,” Abrams said.
  • Around 16% of the site’s pageviews in 2022 came from homepage traffic, Abrams said.

What’s next: As search-based content becomes more commoditized, media brands will need to pivot towards serving specific audiences, rather than the masses.

  • “You’re going to have to get even more specialized as a publisher,” Morrissey said.

Bottom line: “Trying to compete on efficiency with robots never works, they always win,” Morrissey said.


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