ED: I took this interview last summer from a key editor at Nexta, the Belarusian Telegram channel that was both broadcasting information on the brutal crackdown inflicted on protesters following the disputed August 9 presidential election, and actively organising the crowds with its real-time feed during the weekend mass demonstrations.
Roman Protasevich was the editor-in-chief at the time. He was arrested this week after the Belarusian authorities forced a commercial Ryanair flight carrying Protasevich to his home in exile in Vilnius to land at Minsk. However, after discussing the article with the Nexta editors we decided not to publish at that time, as it contains operational information on Nexta’s organisation that the Belarusian KGB may have used against the channel.
As the mass protests have died down and the Polish headquarters of Nexta plays less of a key role, and Protasevich himself has left the role as editor-in-chief, we have decided to now release this article to emphasis the key role Protasevich and Nexta have been playing in the struggle against Lukashenko’s authoritarianism and why Protasevich’s kidnapping is such an important landmark in the struggle by the Belarusian people to be rid of Lukashenko’s brutal regime. The article remains abridged, names removed and some of the details have been supressed, for as Protasevich’s arrest shows, that the Belarusian KGB is active in the EU and still working against the opposition leadership and organisations.
Ben Aris, editor-in-chief, bne IntelliNews
The Belarusian protest movement is being led in part by a private chat group which editors of Belarus’ dozen leading Telegram channels belong to, where they co-ordinate their content and to a significant extent direct the population-wide protests against incumbent Alexander Lukashenko.
“The private chat is the “brain” of the protests and has some 20-30 people in it. They talk over the news and think up ideas to counteract the authorities and then distribute those messages over their networks,” says Maxim (a pseudonym), a member of the Nexta team, in an exclusive interview with bne IntelliNews.
The entire population of Belarus were incensed by the blatant falsification of the August 9 presidential elections and have risen up en masse against the authorities.
The Telegram channels played a key role in the revolution and called for mass rallies that regularly drew over 100,000 people each week – more than 10% of the country’s entire population – that simply swamped the state’s efforts to prevent or contain the demonstrations.
In what has been dubbed a “leaderless” revolution, if Nexta calls the people out to march they come, and in their tens of thousands.
It's a new kind of revolution. There is no need for charismatic orators to give iconic speeches, or fleets of buses to bring crowds to symbolic venues. A message is broadcast to millions of smartphones and the masses just walk out of their front door to fill the streets with a unity of purpose.
This is a revolution by a committee that has no chairman. The editors driving the channels are united by shared principles and the common goal of all Belarusians to oust Lukashenko by peaceful means.
The channels also give real power to the people, as the content is mostly created not by the editors or their reporters, but the people themselves. Nexta editors select the best of the content submitted by their users and distribute it. It's a technological innovation that literally gives the formless protest movement a voice – the power pyramid turned on its head.
From a collection of individuals are formed co-ordinated groups that can resist the authorities' attempts to intimidate and beat them into submission. Tactics that intimidate the OMON offices like the shrieking banshees of Belarus, the phalanxes of women that formed around male crowd members to protect them from arrest, or the de-masking of riot police who then run for anonymity are quickly shared and put to use across the country within hours. Ultimately it is the people that are driving the revolution not Nexta.
Someone called Nexta
The Nexta channel (the “x” is pronounced like the “ch” in Bach, as the name is a play on the Belarusian word for “someone”) is pre-eminent amongst the dozen channels broadcasting opposition content.
The 26-year-old Protasevich and his friend Stepan Putilo founded the channel on YouTube in 2015 and began to document abuses by the local authorities. The channel grew slowly and launched a Telegram channel of the name a few years later, which became one of the venues for Lukashenko’s opponents to make themselves heard. But the membership exploded last year and by the height of the conflict Nexta briefly became the most read news outlet in the world.
“Nexta was small to begin with, one of many. It began to grow [at the end of 2019] after the previous editor, Vladimir Kuzminsov, was arrested. The first big pick-up in traffic was before the presidential campaign got underway, when the channel reported on a policeman that got shot, a story that was widely ignored by all other media. Nexta was the only one reporting on that story and for some reason a lot of people started following it,” says Maxim. “It took us to over 100,000 followers. The next step up came at the start of the presidential election campaign and it’s grown very fast since then.”
All the leading Belarusian channels are co-operating with each other to form a unified response to the attempts by the administration to break the protests up – sometimes controlling the crowds in real time.
“Nexta has a bot that can send content to us. There are usually about 5,000 posts a day, but when things get tense this can go up to 20,000,” says Maxim.
A small team of editors, almost all based in the company’s office in Poland, then sort through all the posts and publish the most significant or valuable.
Despite repeated attempts, the authorities have been unable to block the battle-hardened Russian message service. Russia tried to close the channel down after founder Alexander Durov refused to hand over the digital keys that would have allowed the Federal Security Service (FSB) to listen in to encrypted conversations.
After a two-year-long battle, the Russian government finally gave up on trying to block Telegram in June last year and removed the ban on Telegraph, which ran circles around the security services attempts to cut it off.
“We were in contact with Durov at the start of the protests and he made some changes to improve the service in Belarus, but he has not been actively involved. However, we are grateful for his support,” Maxim said. “And Telegram is the only message service that has a red and white Belarusian flag emoji!”
Nexta and its peers don't limit themselves to passively posting comments, pictures and videos; they also proactively call for rallies and during the protests give advice on which direction the crowds should march, reports on police movements and offer advice and help on how to counter the attacks and arrest by the police.
Pro-active orders meets the organic movements
“All the editors of the main Telegram channels are in a private chat group and they share information as it comes in and co-ordinate their response,” says Maxim. “There is a constant discussion on what strategy to adopt and what advice to give subscribers. But it’s not that flexible. You can’t give orders to the crowd in real time. You can only really make announcements 2-3 times a day and then the 5-10% of the crowd that are looking at the service then relays this to people around them.”
An example is a call to march to Independence Square, where many of the rallies have been held. “But if the square is closed you can ask everyone to march north-west or return to their homes and organise local protests. That about the most you can do.”
The editors only have a limited power to influence the protests, as in parallel the people are setting up their own chat groups to organise their own protest actions. Increasingly local communities are banding together in smaller chat groups and are co-ordinating small protests in the micro-regions where they live, atomising the protests and making it increasingly impossible for the OMON and secret police to be everywhere at once.
But the editor’s group was responsible for the largest protests at the weekend, which became a fixed feature of the protests against Lukashenko. Surprisingly they were not involved in the parallel women-only rallies that began to happen every Saturday.
“The ladies organised that themselves,” said Maxim. “They started a chat, called for a rally and then spread the word.” Between 10,000 and 20,000 women attended the second rally on Saturday, September 5 and parallel smaller female-only rallies appeared in the regional towns and cities.
The power of the Telegram channels is growing, as most of the Belarusian independent media are turning to them after their printing presses and online sites were closed down by the authorities.
“To be honest, I think now some of these media channels are doing a better job than Nexta, as they have their own journalists and photographers, so the quality of the information is better. Nexta is still at the end of the day relying on ordinary people to post everything. But it doesn't matter. The more information that is shared the better.”
The Nexta team is small, with only 4-5 people in one room that work in shifts; one person is on between 7am and 5pm and two work from 1pm to 10pm, as most of the action takes place in the afternoon and early evening. The team is young, mostly between 25 and 35 years old, and many of them are journalists or civil rights activists.
Two Polish policemen have been posted outside the building for the Nexta’s staff’s protection after Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki came to visit the office during the height of the protests.
“He also offered to assign a personal protection police detail to all the members of Nexta’s staff, but they refused,” says Maxim. “It seemed to be overkill.”