How to topple ‘Europe’s last dictator’? Belarus activist journalists take aim.

How to topple ‘Europe’s last dictator’? Belarus activist journalists take aim.

Kuba Stezycki/Reuters

Warsaw-based Belarusian blogger Stsiapan Putsila is pictured at the Nexta office in Warsaw, Poland, on May 24, 2021.

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May 26, 2021

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When Stsiapan Putsila started a YouTube channel six years ago as part of a homework assignment, he couldn’t have foreseen that it would become the focus of the Belarusian president’s ire.

But that is just what has happened after that project, called Nexta, broadcast the protests against Alexander Lukashenko and his subsequent crackdowns against civil society. Nexta flirts with both journalism and propaganda, and as a result, it’s at the forefront of a new ecosystem of dissident media that uses the messaging platform Telegram to shine a light on what is often called Europe’s last dictatorship.

Why We Wrote This

When your sources and audience live under tyranny, how do you tell the truth?

The defining moment for Nexta came in August 2020, when protests erupted across Belarus after disputed elections gave Mr. Lukashenko a sixth term as president. At the time, Nexta already had a solid following on Telegram and quickly became central to the protests in Belarus, which it both coordinated and covered.

Mr. Putsila acknowledges that theirs is no ordinary journalistic project, given their protest coordination efforts and the absence of reporters on the ground.

“I can’t say what we do is journalism,” he says. “We have journalists who collect information, but the information is not collected on the spot because it is impossible. People send it to us. It’s a new kind of journalism that relies on information provided by people.”

Warsaw, Poland; and Basel, Switzerland

You wouldn’t know by looking at it, but the yellow building known as the Belarusian House in the heart of the Polish capital is the source of great frustration for Alexander Lukashenko, the leader of Belarus.

That’s because it is home to the offices of the Telegram channel Nexta, which since last year has broadcast the protests against Mr. Lukashenko and his subsequent crackdowns against civil society that put hundreds of dissidents and media professionals in jail. Nexta’s coverage has placed its own staff in Mr. Lukashenko’s crosshairs too, as shown by the dramatic arrest Sunday of its former editor-in-chief when fighter jets forced down the flight he was on.

Operating out of Poland keeps Nexta’s staff somewhat safe – though police still keep a protective eye on Belarusian House – but the high stakes of confronting Mr. Lukashenko are constantly on the mind of Stsiapan Putsila, Nexta’s founder. “I am inspired by heroes who are now in prison, who went out into the street despite the repression,” he says. “I am inspired by people who, despite the situation, want to fight for the future, not just for themselves.”

Why We Wrote This

When your sources and audience live under tyranny, how do you tell the truth?

Mr. Putsila and his colleagues at Nexta (pronounced “nyechta”) take that “fight for the future” seriously when it comes to Mr. Lukashenko’s regime. This puts Nexta in a position that flirts with both journalism and propaganda. Their crowd-sourcing methods rely on the trust of those risking it all to tell the truth. The outcome leaves Nexta at the forefront of a new ecosystem of dissident media that uses Telegram to shine a light on what is often called Europe’s last dictatorship.

“We have never declared political neutrality,” says Tadeusz Giczan, the current editor-in-chief. “Our goal has always been to overthrow Lukashenko’s regime. We are waging an information war against him, his system. However, we do not lie in this war.”

More activism than journalism?

Mr. Putsila launched Nexta on YouTube in 2015 as part of a homework assignment while studying film in Katowice, Poland. But he came to authorities’ attention in 2018, when he posted a video called “LukaSherlock,” which challenged Mr. Lukashenko’s claim that he had once helped solve a crime. Mr. Putsila was charged with insulting the president and violating copyright law in a criminal case that he credits with boosting the channel’s profile. “It added to the popularity of my channel,” he says. “I partly owe this to the authorities.”

The defining moment for Nexta came in August 2020 when protests erupted across Belarus after disputed elections gave Mr. Lukashenko a sixth term as president. At the time, Nexta already had a solid following on Telegram, a secure platform chosen precisely for its resistance to censorship and capacity to reach vast numbers of people. With a Warsaw-based team of only four working round-the-clock, Nexta quickly became central to the protests in Belarus, which it both coordinated and covered.

Sergei Grits/AP/File

A man looks at Telegram channel Nexta Live on his smartphone during the protests against President Alexander Lukashenko in Minsk, Belarus, Aug. 19, 2020.

The team drew on photos, videos, and leaked documents to capture the days of street revolt and police violence. Mr. Putsila acknowledges that theirs is no ordinary journalistic project given the absence of reporters on the ground and their protest coordination efforts before the heavy-handed crackdown killed their momentum.


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“I can’t say what we do is journalism, although journalism has a lot of different genres,” he says. “We have an editorial office, we publish content, we have journalists who collect information, but the information is not collected on the spot because it is impossible. People send it to us. It’s a new kind of journalism that relies on information provided by people.”

Today Nexta lives on Youtube, Twitter, and Facebook, with its biggest following on Telegram, where it has over a million subscribers.

There are no hard and fast rules on what gets published, but the final say belongs to Mr. Giczan, who considers himself more activist than journalist. “We have people with different political views in the editorial team,” says Mr. Giczan, a dual Polish-Belarusian national. “We have so much work that we don’t even have time to think about some internal code. But that doesn’t mean we don’t follow moral principles.”

Examples of content Nexta decided not to publish are the medical files and portrait of Mr. Lukashenko’s unknown fourth son, who they say was sent away to an orphanage. Nexta also decided against flagging the daughter of a prominent regime supporter who is studying in Warsaw. “The values that guide me in choosing topics are whether they will expose the actions of the authorities, like corruption, and whether it will be interesting and helpful to people,” says Mr. Putsila.

Nexta also fact checks as much as it can, if just to filter out planted false material. “We have to verify the information because we have a lot of fake news that is created by the authorities to show that we are not to be trusted,” says Mr. Putsila.

“A new form of journalism”

Critics say that Nexta’s tone has little to do with professional journalism, crosses the line into political activism, and uses language better fit for propaganda.

Belarusian journalist Diana Ratkevich argues that journalism and political activism should be kept separate. “We must remember that we will be responsible for the quality of journalism in a free Belarus,” says Ms. Ratkevich, who covered the bloody protests in Belarus for Belsat TV, a Polish government-funded satellite TV channel. “We have to maintain standards.”

Kseniya Halubovich, a documentary photographer based in Minsk, credits Nexta with doing crucial work during the first months of the protests when many media were blocked, even if they did not always verify their information. But “I don’t read them now because militsiya [national police] can check your phone and your Telegram account, and if they see that you follow them you can be arrested, because Nexta is considered by the regime as an extremist group in Belarus,” she says.

Joerg Forbrig, senior fellow and director for Central and Eastern Europe at the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Berlin, says Nexta has been on a learning curve when it comes to producing content and fact-checking their material. While their way of work doesn’t always square with Western media standards, it is breaking new ground. “They represent a new form of journalism,” he says. “It’s basically a combination of activist journalism, a news coverage that also calls to action, and a crowd-sourced, citizen journalism.”

That Nexta has managed to retain a solid following inside of Belarus despite the persecution of anyone shown to be accessing the channel is no small feat, says Mr. Forbrig. “The labeling as extremists and the increase in the punishments for distributing extremist content is designed to drive away people from Nexta and comparable channels.”

The lengths to which Mr. Lukashenko is willing to silence the media came into sharp focus this month. First came the state seizure of Minsk’s largest independent news site, Tut.by, which caused a few ripples in the West. Then came the dramatic arrest of Raman Pratasevich, Nexta’s co-founder, who along with his girlfriend was dragged off a Ryanair flight after it was forced to land in Minsk over a dubious security threat. Next came laws banning media coverage of protests and empowering prosecutors to shut down the internet.

With the protest movement badly bruised in Belarus, Nexta is soldiering on with a reduced staff of about 10 Belarusians, down from 20 in the aftermath of the protests in August last year. Recent efforts to fundraise brought in less than $500, and advertising revenues have dropped dramatically. “Our channel has been declared a terrorist channel in Belarus, so people and companies who work with us may also be considered extremists,” says Mr. Putsila.

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Nexta has responded by internationalizing its work and message, including making policy recommendations on how the West should pressure Belarus over the arrest of Mr. Pratasevich. The Nexta team thinks that his seizure won’t work as Mr. Lukashenko may have planned.

“The regime takes hostages to trade them later with the West,” Mr. Putsila said just days before his ex-colleague became one of 426 political prisoners. “But it won’t work this time. The repressions are on such an unimaginable scale that the West won’t want to get along with Lukashenko anymore.”

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Mark Sappenfield
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