Belarus: The smartphone versus the baton

Source: IFEX

“Do you have the ability to block Telegram channels?”

In September 2020, BelTA, the Belarusian state news agency, reported on an interview President Lukashenka had recently given to Russian media. According to the report, Lukashenka was particularly concerned about the role that certain social media were playing in the direction of his country’s future. He told his interviewers: “Do you have the ability to block Telegram channels? No-one has. Even those who designed the World Wide Web — the Americans — don’t have this ability”. He went on to say: “Even if the Internet is disabled today, these Telegram channels from Poland will keep working”.

The stories that will never be heard on Belarusian TV

As the demonstrations spread across the country, protest organisers and activists set up Telegram channels to communicate anonymously. There were channels for every city and district — sometimes for individual apartment blocks too — and they were used to direct protests, share information about neighbours who had been detained or otherwise targeted, maintain morale and even organise cultural events.

Controversies

NEXTA played a key part in helping to organise protests involving hundreds of thousands of people. It also assisted activists on the ground by publishing calls for help, maps of where the police were congregating, addresses of safe places to hide and contact details for lawyers. For this reason, some have criticised NEXTA for blurring the line between activism and journalism. Others have also raised concerns over apparent failings when it comes to fact-checking (and thus the danger of spreading misinformation). In early August 2020, for example, NEXTA erroneously reported the death of a protester who had been beaten up by the police.

The baton strikes

The Belarusian authorities knew that any attempt to block access to Telegram would prove fruitless: in June 2020, the neighboring Russian authorities admitted that their 2018 ban on the app had been a complete failure.

Crowdfunding solidarity

In August 2020, appalled by the intensity of the violence being directed at peaceful protesters by the police and the KGB, Mikita Mikado, a Silicon Valley-based tech entrepreneur and founder of the Belarusian software company PandaDoc, felt compelled to do something about it. He decided to post a simple message on his Instagram account: “I appeal to the Belarusian security officials. If you want to be on the side of good, but finances do not allow, write — I will help”. Mikado’s immediate aim was to reduce or stop the violence; his plan was to help alleviate the financial burden suffered by security officials who quit their jobs and refused to take part in the ongoing crackdown.

The legal chokehold, and beyond

In May 2021, Lukashenka signed into law amendments that tighten the regime’s chokehold on free expression in Belarus and severely restrict any form of public protest.

The dark side

Telegram channels are popular with activists across Europe and Central Asia, especially those living under authoritarian governments. Protesters in Russia, for instance, used the app to organise the anti-Putin demonstrations earlier this year that were triggered by the jailing of the opposition figure Alexei Navalny.

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
IFEX

IFEX

IFEX is a global network of organisations that defend and promote the right to freedom of expression and information. Email: info@ifex.org