Belarus election: How Nexta channel bypassed news blackout
For days, Belarusians have had little information about the riots filling their streets, with state TV making few attempts to report it and other websites and social media offline.
But one source of information that has attracted a growing number of people to this country of 9.5 million people is a channel on the popular Telegram messaging app called Nexta. Pronounced NEKH-ta, she managed to bypass many of the restrictions.
Opposition websites were online again on Wednesday, but there was silence for three nights.
How Nexta reached its audience
“We are sitting in a bunker,” a Belarusian described the situation.
Meanwhile, hundreds of messages are posted for Nexta’s 1.5 million subscribers. A riot police vehicle is seen driving through the crowd, police are filmed beating a demonstrator on the ground, petrol bombs are dropped: this news is visible and uncensored.
Telegram’s messenger has only been available sporadically via wi-fi, but its founder Pavel Durov claims to have enabled “anti-censorship tools”.
“Shutting down the internet is a serious mistake by the authorities,” Nexta editor-in-chief Roman Protasevich told BBC Russian. “Telegram has captured almost all the Belarusians who are flooding the streets in an attempt to bring about changes in the country.”
With most of the opposition leadership out of the country, the channel played a key role in coordinating the protests. But the more established opposition media are wary of such an activist source of information whose messages are difficult to verify.
Nexta has published calls for help, maps showing where the police are, addresses to hide for protesters and contacts for lawyers and human rights activists.
It also advised subscribers how to get around the internet blocking using proxies and other means.
Before the third night of protests, he gave detailed instructions to protesters on how to act on the streets.
What is Nexta?
It doesn’t have a website and only a small four-person editorial office in Warsaw, but it does have a YouTube and Telegram channel and an information-hungry audience.
Their chief editor says they are “pioneers of computer journalism”, where video and photo content is “as brief, informative and illustrative as possible.”
Founded five years ago as music on YouTube by the teenager Stepan Putilo, also known as Stepan Svetlov, translates from Belarusian as “someone”.
The first video was a sarcastic cover of a song, mocking the 2015 campaign ahead of the re-election of President Alexander Lukashenko. “For 20 years there was no choice, just a worn tire”.
Then it came to corruption, theft and drunken driving officials, promising “honest information about reality in Belarus”.
“It was my hobby. I made funny videos for my relatives’ birthdays. Then I decided to hoard all the trash from Lukashenko’s Belarus,” Putilo told the human rights website Charter 97.
Telegram channel Nexta Live emerged in 2018, and the following year a documentary about the Belarusian autocratic leader attracted nearly three million views on YouTube.
“The film details how Lukashenko stole our country, dreams, freedom, the future and 25 years of life,” said Stepan Putilo.
A court in Belarus declared the film to be “extremist”.
But Nexta’s Telegram channel was noticed and the 2020 election brought it to a new and larger audience.
“Who in 2020 needs a site that any information ministry official can block with one click?” ask its founders. His posts on Telegram attracted hundreds of thousands of views, more than websites like Tut.by, which were hit by censorship.
What do you publish?
Taking primarily user-generated content, Nexta uses anonymous material from all over Belarus.
The platform is also safe, says Protasevich, who argues that the stories they post would never be broadcast on state TV.
Like Stepan Putilo, he lives in Poland, where he applied for political asylum. Despite running the channel from outside Belarus, he insists posts are checked for accuracy and sees no problem supporting the Warsaw protests.
Within hours, its audience grew by 100,000 on election night and then, after two nights of protests, amassed more than a million.
He claims that although the channel mainly uses information posted by users, it rejects criticism from such journalists within Belarus. They say mistakes have been made and point to his apparent ability to coordinate protests.
Hours after Nexta reported protester Yevgeny Zaichkin had died in the early hours of Monday, he told Reuters news agency he survived a brutal police beating.
Anna Kaltygina of the opposition website Tut.by believes Nexta devalues the work of the media by posting unverified information and causing revolution on the Telegram channel. “When working in Poland, it is difficult to control the messages that come from Belarus,” he told the Echo Moscow website.
Nexta’s chief editor says what matters to him is the bloodshed in the streets. “Do I feel responsible for what we publish? Only in terms of whether it will bring people closer to victory and the end of the dictatorship.”
Who finances it?
There is some confusion here. The channel has no advertising and only the names of Stepan Putilo and Roman Protasevich are known.
Mr Putilo has said in the past that the money came from supporters and a previous university scholarship.
However, his colleague told the BBC they only had advertisements and no donations.
A Belarusian petitions website recently asked for state funding for Nexta, claiming it was far more useful than state TV.