Belarus: The smartphone versus the baton

Reflecting on events from the first half of 2021, IFEX’s Europe and Central Asia Editor Cathal Sheerin explains how the Lukashenka regime’s crackdown on Belarus’s independent media and civil society is being challenged at every turn — and often thwarted — by small groups of journalists and activists in the diaspora.

Source: IFEX

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Describing it as 21st Century technology versus 20th Century brutality wouldn’t be entirely accurate, but it’d be close.

While President Lukashenka’s regime continues its crackdown on Belarus’s independent media and civil society, it has been challenged at every turn — and often thwarted — by small groups of journalists and activists living in the diaspora.

These groups are using digital tools and social media apps to ensure that Belarus-based supporters of the opposition — as well as ordinary citizens — can access uncensored information, that they can organise, and that they can find financial, legal or other kinds of assistance if they themselves are targeted by the authorities.

“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”.

Lukashenka was speaking from very recent experience. The “Telegram channels from Poland” was likely an allusion to the Poland-based NEXTA, a media outlet which operates mainly via YouTube and the encrypted messaging app Telegram, and which had managed to continue functioning within Belarus despite recent countrywide and regional internet shutdowns.

Lukashenka was also speaking less than a month after the disputed presidential election that had returned him to power. The results of that election had triggered a historic, massive wave of protests that swept the country, and had people calling for free elections and for Lukashenka to go. (Women’s groups , trade unions, the elderly and students would play a prominent role in the protests in the final months of 2020.) These almost entirely peaceful demonstrations met with an intensely violent response from the police and KGB. The use of armoured cars, flash grenades, rubber bullets and batons left many seriously wounded or maimed, and some dead. By September, approximately 12,000 protesters had been detained; many were tortured in prison.

While footage of the protests and the authorities’ brutal response was rapidly published all around the world, in Belarus the situation was different. The dominant state media played down both the demonstrations and the regime’s use of violence against the protesters. The small and persecuted independent media sector — which even in the best of times has to deal with judicial harassment, denial of accreditation and the pressure to self-censor — reported bravely, but faced the same violent response as the protesters: scores of journalists were detained and beaten in the weeks following the election, with approximately 50 arrested on 27 August alone; at least 17 journalists working for foreign media had their press accreditation withdrawn. The independent press was further stymied by severe internet restrictions — imposed by the regime in the hope of limiting the ability of the protesters to organise — and which lasted from 9 August (election day) until 12 August, leaving users with access only to text messages and phone calls.

The authorities’ attempt to create an information vacuum had two unintended — and hugely significant — consequences: it left Belarusian citizens desperately hungry for uncensored news and it presented anti-Lukashenka, tech-savvy activists with an unparalleled opportunity to satisfy this appetite, massively increase their user base, and spread their message widely.

That vacuum was filled by Telegram, and, most notably, by NEXTA.

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.

NEXTA (which means “someone” in Belarusian) quickly became Telegram’s most popular channel in Belarus. As described by its recently detained editor, Raman Pratasevich, NEXTA is “a network of thousands of Belarusians who are sharing information, who send it to us and thus share the information with the whole country. They tell the stories that should be heard, which will never be heard on Belarusian television or in the official Belarusian media”.

How does it work? Using mostly user-generated content and managed by a small team, NEXTA is decentralised, with no central website. It advises its subscribers to use proxies, VPN and Tor to hide their locations and identities and thus evade the Lukashenka regime’s attempts to restrict their internet freedoms.

Created in 2015 by Stsiapan Putsila, a young Belarusian blogger living in Poland, NEXTA started out as a YouTube channel where Putsila posted music videos and satirical commentary about his homeland. Its Telegram channel was launched in 2018, and it proved popular, gaining 350,000 subscribers before the August 2020 election. But the censorship of the news and the accompanying internet blackout during the early days of the anti-Lukashenka protests saw NEXTA’s subscriber base soar to over two million (representing more than 20 per cent of the entire Belarusian population).

During this period, NEXTA was receiving up to 200 messages a minute (often with videos) from its anonymous users. NEXTA edited what it received and then published the content via its Telegram channel. It showed what state TV didn’t, including extremely violent assaults on protesters by police, flash grenade attacks, impressive acts of resistance and the sheer scale of the protests.

In the weeks that followed, NEXTA also performed an important role documenting and publicising the misogyny that informs some of the regime’s repressive tactics, and which Amnesty International warned about pre-election, when Belarusian state officials had threatened to subject women activists to sexual violence and take away their children.

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.

There have been other moments of controversy. NEXTA has long claimed to be in possession of a wealth of material passed on to it by government insiders or members of the state security apparatus. It has published videos which apparently show police officers publicly resigning or apologising for the violence and calling on their colleagues to end the repression. In September 2020, following the detention of approximately 400 women during a women’s march, NEXTA doxxed (i.e published the names, details and hometowns) of over 1,000 serving police officers (which may have had implications for their family members), and threatened to publish more if the violent suppression of the anti-Lukashenka protests was not brought to an end. Separately, it also published the addresses and phone numbers of anti-terror officers belonging to the Ministry of the Interior.

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.

But NEXTA’s influence in Belarus was intolerable to Lukashenka’s regime. In October 2020, a Minsk court declared the platform’s Telegram channel and logo “extremist”, meaning that anyone using NEXTA could be punished by law (by May 2021, more than 50 other Telegram channels and chats would also be ruled “extremist”). In November, the authorities opened a criminal case against NEXTA’s founder, Putsila, and its editor, Pratasevich, accusing both of “organising mass riots”. In the same month, Putsila and Pratasevich were added to the state’s terrorism list (terrorism carries the death penalty in Belarus).

Then, in May 2021, Pratasevich and his girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, were arrested after their Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius was forced by the Belarusian authorities to reroute and make an emergency landing in Minsk. Videos of both Pratasevich and Sapega making forced confessions later appeared on a pro-government Telegram channel. Pratasevich, whose face showed bruising, ‘confessed’ to organising mass riots; Sapega ‘confessed’ to editing Black Book of Belarus — a Telegram channel which has published the personal information of security officials. The authorities clearly saw the propaganda value in having Pratasevich as a prisoner: by June, he had made two further forced confessions, this time on state television. In the third one he declared that pre-trial detention was the “safest place for me”. Pratasevich and Sapega face extremely lengthy prison sentences.

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.

Although the project he set up, Protect Belarus, received hundreds of messages of interest from disaffected members of the security forces, it did not last long. In September, the authorities raided PandaDoc’s office in Minsk, arresting four senior figures on dubious tax evasion charges and freezing the company’s bank accounts. Protect Belarus was forced to close.

Mikado then went on to help set up the Netherlands-based BYSOL foundation, a crowd-funding solidarity project that provides assistance to Belarusian prisoners, journalists, individuals in need of emergency relocation, and various opposition Telegram channels. By the end of 2020, BYSOL had received almost 3.5 million euros in donations (mainly from small donors), of which more than 3 million were paid out: nearly 1.9 million euros were paid to 1,222 people who had been fired or quit their state jobs because of their opposition to the regime.

Another impressive project is #BY_help, founded in 2018 by a UK-based Belarusian, Alyaksei Lyavonchyk. Originally set up to help pay the fines of people arrested in Belarus using small donor contributions, it saw its donor pool swell in the aftermath of the August election. By February 2021, #BY_help had raised over £2.8 million and had paid out £2.5 million to assist or support Belarusians who had been fined or injured by riot police.

The work of these digital funders has not gone unnoticed by the Belarusian regime. In November 2020, the authorities ordered banks to freeze any funds transferred by #BY_help (for this reason digital solidarity groups are now making payments in cryptocurrency, thereby avoiding Belarus’s banking system entirely). In April 2021, the Department of Investigations Committee in Minsk initiated criminal proceedings against Lyavonchyk and Andrei Stryzhak (Stryzhak helped set up BYSOL and #BY_help, and is also a member of the political opposition’s Coordination Council, all of whom are either in jail or exiled): the two men are accused of “training individuals to participate in group activities, grossly violating public order” and “financing the activities of an extremist group”.

Independent media outlets that report on the activities of these groups have also been targeted. In May 2021, the authorities raided the offices of TUT.BY and detained 12 journalists as part of a spurious tax investigation. They also blocked access to the TUT.BY website because it had posted “prohibited information in a number of articles” about BYSOL. In a statement, the Ministry of Information said: “It is prohibited to disseminate information on Internet resources on behalf of organisations that have not undergone state registration in the prescribed manner”.

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 amendment to the 2008 Law on Mass Media hands the authorities greater powers to suspend independent media outlets (without warning and without a court order if they are deemed a national security threat); deny registration of press organisations; revoke journalists’ accreditation; and restrict media which publishes material that the authorities consider to be propaganda or ‘extremist’ (into this category fall NEXTA and several other Telegram channels).

The amendment to the 1997 Law on Mass Events bans live press coverage (including online streaming) of unauthorised mass events (i.e. all anti-regime demonstrations); treats journalists at mass events as if they were participants in those events; and hits the work of solidarity groups by prohibiting the collection of funds or provision of services in order to help pay fines for individuals found guilty of breaking the law.

So far in 2021, we have not seen a return to the massive protests that so shook Lukashenka’s regime last year. But with these new draconian restrictions on journalism and civic space, and with the ongoing police raids on independent media outlets, the authorities are creating the conditions in which Belarusians will be even more likely to look to NEXTA and its fellow Telegram channels when they want to communicate freely and know what’s really going on.

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.

Inevitably, however, there is also a dark side to Telegram: just as it has enabled citizens to organise effectively, it has also become another tool with which authoritarian governments or their supporters — in Russia and Azerbaijan for example — can intimidate, threaten or endanger political activists (often women’s and LGBTQI+ rights advocates) by doxxing them. This year, Telegram has had to block several of its Russian channels because they were posting the contact details and home addresses (often with explicit calls for violence) of anti-government protesters, journalists and state officials.

Originally published at https://ifex.org on August 9, 2021.

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