Belarus’s Information War

How a grassroots media company took on a dictator

It’s April in 2018, and Stepan Putilo, nineteen years old, smirks as he speaks into his laptop camera. With a landscape painting hanging on a white wall—and little else—in the background, the setup looks like that of a freshman news anchor in his hastily decorated first apartment. Putilo lives in Warsaw, in exile from his native Belarus. 

He’s introducing viewers to a Telegram channel called Nexta—a news-like network that has built a massive following on the instant-messaging service on the strength of its opposition to the Belarusian government and its allies in Moscow. The name means “someone” in Belarusian, which connotes a sort of clandestine anonymity.

The Russian government, Putilo explains, “has blocked more than sixteen million IP addresses. They want to prevent Telegram Messenger from working in Russia. But Telegram Messenger still works in Russia. So what hope do the bumpkins and free-loading flunkies”—from his own government, he means—“have against it?” 

Putilo’s coiffed hair is parted to the side, and he raises his eyebrows theatrically and creases his forehead as he speaks. Like many practiced vloggers—he launched a popular YouTube channel in 2015—he combines the easy fluency of a television presenter with the familiarity of a friend on FaceTime. And his style—knowing and ironic, like a less strident John Oliver—quickly turned him into an icon of the Belarusian opposition.

Nexta’s news bulletins often start with a sardonic monologue from Putilo or another member of his team; move on to a brief excerpt of the Belarusian president, Alexander Lukashenko, or one of his officials saying something foolish; and conclude with a punch line: a meme, or a clip from an old TV show. The channel’s reports sometimes feature modern graphics, often in shades of dark blue that match Nexta’s logo. 

Behind the scenes, Raman Pratasevich, another young exile from Belarus and a journalist skilled in social media and photography, joined the team in early 2020. Where Putilo was smooth, Pratasevich was rough around the edges. But the two shared a vision: to build up a slick opposition media outlet that challenged a sclerotic state media. 

One of the biggest draws to Telegram is a sense of anonymity and security, which lends to a belief that the platform is almost impervious to censorship.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

They’ve built the world’s largest Telegram channel, with over a million subscribers, and two popular YouTube channels. Nexta’s hyperactive mixture of pointed, sometimes vulgar videos, reader-generated exclusives, and calls to protest helped launch a street movement that posed one of the most serious threats to the grasp on power exerted by Lukashenko, Eastern Europe’s longest-lasting and perhaps fiercest dictator. His government has declared Putilo and Pratasevich terrorists.

 

Putilo grew up in Minsk, the austere capital of Belarus. His father, Aleksandr, was a sports journalist at Belsat, an opposition-leaning television station largely funded by the government of neighboring Poland. Putilo, a precocious, combative teen, graduated from the Yakub Kolаs Lyceum, a school that authorities technically shuttered in 2003, when its vision of a free education became threatening to an increasingly entrenched autocracy. 

The school continued to teach covertly in apartments and businesses. It formed generations of opposition activists. It was where Putilo learned discipline, he told Belsat, rising at dawn to travel furtively to his classes. He founded Nexta the year he graduated, in 2015. Friends and colleagues say he brought that attitude with him as he turned Nexta first into a vector of viral YouTube videos and, later, into a massive Telegram brand.

“Stepan is really organized and serious,” said Jan Rudzik, a former Nexta staffer and friend of Putilo’s. “He’s in his early twenties, and he owns the largest Telegram channel in the world.” (Putilo did not respond to repeated requests for an interview.)

Nexta’s first video was a cover of a Russian nineties band, Spleen, called “No Way Out.” Putilo and a friend retooled the kitschy love song into a protest anthem against an unfair presidential election. It is written from the perspective of Belarus’s young people, who, like Putilo himself, feel they have no other option than to leave a stagnant, repressive country. 

Satirical, probing YouTube channels are increasingly common across post-Soviet countries, largely inspired by Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition leader, who has fused anti-corruption videos and political agitation to challenge Vladimir Putin. As Nexta grew, Putilo developed its investigative journalism.

Like Navalny, its investigations of Lukashenko and his entourage allege serious abuses of power and criminality. But they accuse rather than report. And as with Navalny, the stories do not typically include, or even seek out, responses from the government.

Nexta “is trying to produce video content that is both investigative journalism and political activism,” said Aliaksandr Herasimenka, a researcher at Oxford University’s Democracy and Technology Program. That means “not giving people an opportunity to decide for themselves, but giving them a very definite conclusion on what’s happening.”

Pratasevich, Putilo’s former editor in chief, epitomized this mixture of activism and journalism. Early in his teenage years, he had participated in anti-government demonstrations after the presidential election of 2010, which the European Union called a farce. Later, he worked his way up through Belarusian media outlets.

In the early phases of his career, Pratasevich wrote mundane local stories for a news-and-classifieds website, many of them about cars. But before turning twenty, Pratasevich witnessed some of Eastern Europe’s most dramatic recent history. 

In 2014, he freelanced, he has said, from Ukraine during the hottest period in the conflict between the nation’s government and Russian-backed separatists. Pratasevich was, perhaps, inspired by what he witnessed that year: a democratic revolution that sought to break with Soviet-style autocracy.  

In 2019, Pratasevich’s friend and Nexta colleague Vladimir Chudentsov was arrested while trying to flee from Belarus to Poland. Pratasevich also suspected that the KGB (as Belarus’s secret service is still called) was monitoring him. “Suspicious cars started parking in front of my home,” Pratasevich told BBC Russian in 2020. “I understood that the next person they’d detain would be me.” So, like his colleagues before him, Pratasevich fled Belarus for Poland, where Putilo quickly hired him to edit Nexta’s Telegram channels.

Analysts say one of the biggest draws to Telegram is a sense of anonymity and security, which lends to a belief that the platform is almost impervious to censorship. “By default, Facebook encourages people to reveal their real names, post their profile pictures,” said Herasimenka. “Telegram is the opposite.” The channels became a popular way to distribute news in many former Soviet countries. Today, they are as ubiquitous as Twitter is in the Anglosphere. 

And though readers know who runs Nexta, its editors encourage users to contribute content anonymously from Belarus to the curators-in-exile. Initially, stories on the Telegram channel tended to highlight small moments of resistance to a dictatorship, like photos of a piece of anti-government graffiti scrawled with a Sharpie. Sometimes the channel covered overt displays of authoritarianism, as in videos featuring jackbooted police officers or, as tensions rose, heavy synth and drums over footage of police beating protesters. Almost always, Pratasevich’s personality—attention-seeking and hyperbolic—came through. 

Together, Pratasevich and Putilo built up Nexta’s popularity. Then, in the summer of 2020—during Belarus’s most tumultuous year since the nineties, when it gained independence from the Soviet Union and then careened into autocracy—it became one of the best-known outlets in the Russian-speaking world.

 

Lukashenko rose to power in 1994. He won a democratic election, then gradually consolidated the Belarusian government into authoritarianism. In 2020, he prepared for his fifth reelection. But that was a year when it was bad to be a leader—worse to be a populist autocrat.

Lukashenko’s first major selling point was prosperity, largely due to Russian subsidies. Once those were cut back, and after war broke out in Ukraine, he sold himself as a purveyor of stability. Lukashenko, a former farm boss, also presented himself as, quite literally, down to earth: propaganda on state television depicted him as a potato harvester who kept his people fed. For years, Belarusian journalists say, Lukashenko had an equal number of supporters and opponents. But most people were apathetic, or content enough to avoid engaging with politics. Then came covid-19.

“Lukashenko was saying, Drink vodka, drive tractors, and you’ll be safe,” said Hanna Liubakova, a Belarusian-born journalist. But eventually, people “saw this disparity between what he was saying,” she added, “and their colleagues and relatives who were dying because of the pandemic.” A feeling that the government was lying to them about the true extent of the crisis drove Belarusians online, at a point when the internet was still mostly open. 

Lukashenko’s opposition dominated much of the political digital space. Opinion vlogs in the spirit of Nexta, like former businessman Siarhei Tsikhanouski’s A Country for Life, started gaining traffic. Nexta was newsy, young, and wry, while Tsikhanouski’s site came across as middle-aged, straitlaced, and, above all, angry. In the spring, he launched a presidential campaign, becoming one of three contenders to seriously contest Lukashenko’s reelection. “More than 130,000 subscribers have asked me to campaign,” Tsikhanouski said, as he announced his run for president, “because they can’t imagine turning out for any other candidate.”

His messages, which denounced government unfairness and autocracy, became increasingly popular. In May, he was arrested. His wife, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, stepped in to replace him on the ballot. She soon became the de facto opposition leader, as part of a trio of female activists who campaigned on behalf of jailed men. Their rallies grew larger and larger, with the online opposition, like Nexta, boosting their campaign. 

On August 9, Belarus voted. By this time, the government was scared of public opinion. Many—probably most—people believed in the possibility of a real change this time. The opposition had urged supporters to document fraud. But on Election Day, the government switched off the internet and banned citizens from bringing cellphones and cameras to polling sites.

But Telegram was working. Opposition-aligned channels were full of reports about a huge turnout—and videos of polling officials spiriting ballot papers away. Still, supporters of Tsikhanouskaya had hope for her victory. 

At 8pm, when the polls closed, state television declared Lukashenko had won over 80 percent of the vote. Spontaneous demonstrations began almost immediately. Protesters marched through Minsk’s center; police violently tried to disperse them. Soon, protesters trained their sights on state television. They gathered outside its Minsk headquarters in the days after the vote, chanting, “Tell the truth.”

Inside the building, staffers’ discontent with the channel’s news output peaked. Belarusian state television still reflects old-fashioned Soviet-style propaganda: long excerpts from the president’s meetings and valorizing reports on bureaucrats. While police were beating demonstrators in the streets, state television described overwhelmingly peaceful protesters as violent provocateurs. In response, some staffers went on strike or resigned.

“I couldn’t sleep because of all of the flashes of light and the explosions outside my window,” said Sergei Kozlovich, then a news anchor on Belarus 1 television, of election night. But the next morning, he had to present “just dry information about the protests. And then, by 12pm, we started broadcasting the Interior Ministry’s version of events. 

“It was hard to read it out: it was a lie. Afterwards, I went to my bosses and told them I couldn’t read it again. They told me to write my resignation letter the next day.”

Nexta, meanwhile, was flooded with videos and photos of police brutality. Throughout Belarus’s so-called Hot August, Nexta encouraged people to protest in the evenings. “It had been a wonderful summer that had given us a lot of hope,” Rudzik, the former Nexta editor, said. “And, like everyone, we were shocked when the violence began. But we did everything we could to help people coordinate and bring people the truth despite the internet blockade.” 

Nexta’s ex-staffers acknowledge that they sometimes behave more like activists. “Many of their publications cannot be called journalistic materials,” said Volha Siakhovich of the Belarusian Association of Journalists, which champions the cause of independent Belarusian media workers. After the election, she said, “there were calls to violence and offensive and hostile language was used.”

Former staffers argue that they were waging an “information war” against the government using the tools of truthful “propaganda” or “counter-propaganda.” The end goal is to provoke people to challenge, even overthrow, the regime.

In September 2020, the site published the details of more than a thousand Belarusian security officials, passed to them by hackers. The list reportedly included full names, birth dates, hometowns, places of employment, and job titles. (The spreadsheet is now inaccessible because it violates Google’s terms of service.) When I asked Rudzik if he regrets that decision—given that it likely led to the government labeling the channel extremist, and then Putilo and Pratasevich terrorists—he was unrepentant.

“Even now, some Belarusian security officials have carte blanche for their actions. They’ll never face court,” he told me. “Those who torture and cripple people aren’t held to account. And they do so in masks. After we published the list, it shocked them, and a lot of them resigned and wrote to us, asking to be taken off the list.”

As government repression against civil society and journalists escalated in late 2020 and early 2021, Nexta doxed far more people. It published a list of over 7,500 suspected prison and national guards in November, including their phone numbers and addresses. Other opposition channels on Telegram embraced the tactic. So far, however, that has only increased government targeting and punishing of journalists and bloggers.

“I see her sentence as an act of political terror. It is designed to paralyze the journalistic community with fear.”

 

By the winter, the regime appeared to have won. Many protesters retreated to their neighborhoods, where they organized modest, surreptitious displays of dissent. But tens of thousands of opposition supporters had been detained, and hundreds were serving jail sentences, according to a recent UN human rights report. In custody, former detainees and human rights advocates told me, conditions were appalling. Some guards and Interior Ministry officials tortured captives, cells were overcrowded, and there was little food.

Among those arrested were 480 journalists, according to the Belarusian Association of Journalists, which itself has now been “liquidated” by the authorities. (The country’s Ministry of Information did not reply to a request for an interview.) Most of those detained were released days or weeks later. But once the streets quieted, some of the country’s best-known independent reporters and opposition bloggers faced trial. 

In February of 2021, a Minsk court sentenced two Belsat journalists, Katsiaryna Andreyeva and Darya Chultsova, to two years in a prison colony. They were arrested in the fall for livestreaming a vigil for a victim of one of the most notorious cases of police brutality during the protests; authorities charged them with inciting a protest.

In prison, Andreyeva’s husband says, the journalist is forced to wear a yellow band designating her as a political extremist. “I see her sentence as an act of political terror,” said Igor Ilyash, an investigative reporter. “It is designed to paralyze the journalistic community with fear. And that’s also what the colony is supposed to do.”

While Andreyeva has not been tortured, her partner said, other bloggers and journalists have allegedly suffered beatings, or worse. Igor Losik, who worked at Belarus’s second most popular Telegram channel, Belamova, has suffered particularly severe treatment, according to his loved ones.

Losik had been on hunger strike twice since his arrest in May 2020. When his wife, Dasha, also tried to go on strike, she told me, the authorities threatened to take her daughter away and place her in a pediatric clinic. 

Then, in March, as a prosecutor explained to Losik that he could be sentenced to fifteen years in detention, the blogger cut his wrists. “It was his answer to those ridiculous charges,” Dasha told me. “I was afraid that he was on the verge of ending his life. And then my life wouldn’t have any meaning anymore, because my husband is my life.” 

As Lukashenko’s regime exacted revenge on his critics at home, the president’s most vehement adversaries remained out of his reach. Instead, they were abroad: at Nexta’s small office in Warsaw, or in Lithuania, where Tsikhanouskaya, the opposition leader, now lives.

This past spring, Pratasevich accompanied Tsikhanouskaya to an economic forum in Athens. His flight home to Lithuania passed over Belarusian territory. Minsk air control informed the crew that terrorists had placed a bomb on board. Under intense pressure—and with a fighter jet shadowing it—the Ryanair plane landed in Minsk. 

Pratasevich and his girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, were arrested and held separately. His parents (who declined to be interviewed for this piece) have alleged that Pratasevich has been pressured and tortured in order to “break” his will to resist. Indeed, since his arrest, the blogger seems to have grown more cooperative with his captors. His first “confession” video after his arrest lasted just over thirty seconds. Marks are visible on his face.

Later, with indents on his wrists, Pratasevich gave an interview to state television declaring he wanted to get out of politics, settle down, and start a family with Sapega. He also declared his newfound admiration for the president. Then he made a surprise appearance at a government press conference, to deny he had been tortured. In response, a BBC correspondent walked out, and one of Pratasevich’s colleagues declared she did not believe a word he said. 

By July, Pratasevich—or his handlers—set up a new Twitter account to answer user and press questions. When I messaged with this account, I was told Pratasevich had been released from custody and was living in a village, “breathing fresh air, relaxing after a tough month.” He promised to try to organize an interview with me if his interrogators permitted it, but I never heard back. 

Meanwhile, the magnitude of government repression has demoralized the opposition and independent reporters. “I’m afraid my name will end up in some KGB database,” said Tanya Kapitnova, a freelance photographer who spent ten days in jail earlier this year after covering a protest, “and that they will detain me again, this time for years.” 

Putilo remains in Warsaw and reportedly has Polish police or security service protection. His appearances on the Nexta YouTube channel have been infrequent of late. His most recent major video came this August, one year after the mass protests began on election night. He issued a sincere forty-five-minute retrospective on the Belarusian revolution. I got the sense that Putilo is arguing with some of his audience, trying to convince them that it was not all in vain. 

Lukashenko’s departure no longer appears imminent. Some journalists told me they are now considering applying for refugee status abroad. Others keep a bag packed, believing they could be arrested at any moment. “Most of my friends,” said Liubakova, “have been either jailed or left the country or gone into hiding.” 

A year after Nexta declared that the revolution had started, the opposition to Europe’s most durable dictatorship still wants to believe it can force Lukashenko out. I asked Rudzik if he thinks the regime will fall. “We await [his end]. We have bet everything on it,” he said. “And there’s no other way out for us.”

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Charles McPhedran is a freelance journalist based in Berlin and Kyiv. He covers Central and Eastern European politics and justice.

TOP IMAGE: Stepan Putilo in a Nexta video that looks back at a year of protests against the country's authoritarian ruler, Alexander Lukashenko. Screenshot via YouTube.