Belarusian aircraft no longer fly to the European Union. The E.U. made this decision in late May after a Ryanair flight from Greece to Lithuania was forced to land in Minsk, the Belarus capital, following a bomb warning from air traffic controllers. No bomb was found.
Many, including Amnesty International, believe that the forced landing had a different aim.
The plane was carrying Raman Protasevich, a Belarusian journalist who had left the country in 2019, wary of persecution by authorities. He had been the editor of the NEXTA Telegram channel, which had been declared an “extremist medium” by officials in Belarus. After the plane was grounded, Protasevich was charged on several criminal counts, including for “organizing civil unrest” in August 2020. Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary called the incident “a case of state-sponsored hijacking [and] state-sponsored piracy.”
Launched in 2018, the NEXTA Telegram channel became popular thanks to its unique social and political content. Its creator, Stephan Putilo, said that he wanted to “accumulate all the trash of Lukashenko’s Belarus,” referring to the country’s authoritarian president. The channel was one of the few outlets offering credible information during the civil unrest of 2020, when the internet was taken down for several days.
What kind of media is NEXTA, if working for it leads to the state’s relentless persecution of one of its journalists?
How Telegram became a primary news source in Belarus
The peak of NEXTA’s popularity was in August 2020, when it reached around 2 million subscribers, in a country with 9 million people total. With just over 1 million users today, the outlet still runs the most popular Telegram channel in Belarus.
In addition to NEXTA, there were other large channels that boasted more than 100,000 subscribers prior to August 2020. These include “Brain-dead Belarus” with 218,000 subscribers today, and “Belarus is shocked!” which today has 87,000 subscribers. They remain among the country’s most-read media, and alongside them many other popular channels have appeared. According to this 2020 report from the Centre for European Transformation, by last November 22 channels had surpassed 100,000 subscribers. Today, however, according to the non-profit Tgstat, there are 12 such channels.
The same study documents how Telegram’s explosive growth in Belarus began in March, 2020, noting how the messaging app served both as a source of news and as an organizing platform. What made it popular? The researchers write: “Telegram’s relative security and its image first encouraged its use by new wave bloggers, and then by a substantial proportion of the exponents of change in the country.”
According to the assessment of the International Strategic Action Network for Security, this environment was more or less free from “total control.” The channels made it possible to “receive news directly from primary sources,” and engage in discussion in the comments sections.
What’s next for the media?
Certain trends likely to impact the future of the news industry in Belarus are already evident.
First, certain laws governing the media are changing. As of June, for example, journalists may no longer produce live coverage of unauthorized public events. It’s a clear effort by authorities to deprive journalists in opposition to Lukashenko’s regime their freedom to speak out, or to sideline them from reporting altogether. In late May, Minister of Information Vladimir Pertsov said about the media that some people “would put on a journalist’s mask and attempt to engage in destructive, subversive, even terrorist activities.”
The number of independent news outlets in the country is shrinking, too. The highest-profile example of this crackdown has been Tut.by, the country’s largest independent website, which authorities closed in mid-May. The outlet’s editorial board reported that the site had roughly 3.3 million readers from Belarus. Now, users can’t access the site, even with a VPN, so it operates on Telegram, where authorities can’t block it. Today, Tut.by has 518,000 subscribers on the messaging app, making it the second largest channel in Belarus.
Unfortunately, being a journalist in Belarus today is exceedingly dangerous. The Committee to Protect Journalists has assessed, for example, that the country is among the world’s leaders when it comes to imprisoned journalists. Detentions and fines for reporting are prevalent, and many media workers are forced to leave the country for safety reasons.
Will news channels on Telegram supplant traditional media sites?
According to Andrej Bastunec, the chairman of the Belarusian Association of Journalists, authorities in Belarus “want to systematically, in one go, put an end to the dissemination of information in all segments — both in traditional independent media, and online media.”
Journalist Ilya Dobrotvor added that the government hopes to replace independent media with its own state-run operations. “The authorities are preparing a resource that’s supposed to replace Tut.by. I was offered a job there, and I didn’t say no at the time because I was planning to leave Belarus,” he said in an interview he gave only after fleeing the country for Poland.
Bastunec is hopeful that as the state attempts to crack down on independent media, other non-state initiatives will fill the void. “Those won’t be state-controlled media,” he said, “despite giant injections [of money] into their operations.”
Will Telegram channels rise to the occasion? The currently imprisoned editor-in-chief of Tut.by, Marina Zolotova, shared her thoughts on this issue last year: “If you remove all the independent media, the only things left will be the state-run TV channels, newspapers and [independent] Telegram channels. The most popular of them has more than 2 million subscribers [at the time]. I don’t know any other country where a fifth of the population is subscribed to a single Telegram channel,” she said.
“Reporting published by independent media outlets complies with professional standards, and is reviewed before publication. Nobody demands this from the Telegram channels, however,” Zolotova continued. “If there isn’t any independent media, people won’t be influenced by [propaganda] newspapers like “Belarus Today-Soviet Belarus” and state-run TV channels. They will be influenced solely by the Telegram channels. If the government is fine with this, then it doesn’t need us. If it’s not fine with it, then it does.”
What to read in the Belarusian segment of Telegram:
- For news about Belarus: Tut.by.
- The NEXTA channel, for which Raman Protasevich was an editor. In Belarus, this resource is declared an extremist outlet.
- Motolko, help!, which used to cover issues of urban planning but has since delved more into social and political content. The Belarusian government has also declared this channel an extremist resource. It has its own chat with 9,000 users.
- The Belarusian Association of Journalists’ Telegram channel, which discusses the news industry in the country.
- Chats held among Belarusians living both in the country and outside.
This article was originally published by our Russian site. It was translated to English by Marina Pustilnik.