It was the scrappy app that, some observers say, finally defeated “Europe’s last dictator,” Belarusian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka. For others, it is a dangerous tool that can be used by “puppeteers” to whip up riots. Whatever the view, Belarus’ Telegram channels arguably now provide the punch for a powerful fifth estate.
During Belarus’ presidential-election protests and Internet blackout, the Russian-designed messaging app played a “very substantial” role, becoming both “a news source” and, in some cases, “a mobilizer” for mass demonstrations, commented Alyaksandr Starikevich, deputy chairman of the Belarusian Association of Journalists.
Even with Belarus’ Internet service largely restored, the app still appears to provide most of the video and much of the information about the Eastern European country’s ongoing national protests against police violence and vote results that the European Union terms fraudulent.
What is this app and what are the main channels to follow for firsthand information about the political situation in Belarus? For the uninitiated, Current Time Digital has created a guide.
Telegram + Belarus: A Backgrounder
Before the country’s August 9 presidential election, Belarus and Telegram Messenger were not exactly a couple. Seventy percent of the 662 Belarusians surveyed in an August 2019 study for the Baltic Internet Policy Initiative said that they preferred Viber, developed in Belarus, for their messaging needs, trailed by Skype and WhatsApp.
It took just a few days in early August 2020 to change all that. After the Belarusian Internet went largely dead on August 9, leaving voters desperate for information, Belarusians began to rely on Telegram for information about the election protests and police crackdown.
The main reason was simple: accessibility. Telegram founder Pavel Durov, co-creator of the largest Russian social network VKontakte, tweeted on August 10 that the company had turned on its “anti-censorship tools” to keep the app available for Belarusian users despite connectivity problems.
Telegram features an embedded proxy system, plus other undisclosed features, that enables it to evade blocking. Its focus on privacy and anonymity has fueled the app’s adoption by protesters around the globe, including Hong Kong, Iran, and Russia. The latter blocked Telegram in 2018, but dropped this two years later after the app kept introducing new anti-blocking techniques.
For speed, it relies, in part, on encrypted Content Delivery Network caches, akin to temporary storage areas relatively near to users, which, it claims, accelerate download speeds.
The fact that many Belarusian Telegram users started writing text descriptions of videos posted in Telegram channels further helped those with slower download speeds. Plus, the app itself does not have to be downloaded; channels can be previewed in a regular browser, although without the anti-blocking features.
But, ironically, one of the main reasons for Telegram’s current appeal in Belarus may have come courtesy of its most vocal detractor, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka.
His “weekly” mentions of Telegram – usually denunciations of allegedly “fake” or “bandit” channels that post unfavorable reports and rumors about him and his policies – led to a sharp uptick in Telegram subscribers as of March, a volunteer-run Belarus Telegram channel announced this May.
In 2016, the app had just eight channels in Belarus, according to the channel. Currently, Belarus Telegram contains some 817 channels, 302 of which are “verified” as “official.”
The government itself makes wide use of Telegram, with ministries often posting announcements in their official channels.
But setting up a channel on Telegram about Belarusian current events (or joining one) often comes with a high risk.
After Interior Minister Yury Karayev complained on June 25 about “protest coordination via Telegram,” police picked up Ihar Losik, the manager of one of Belarus’ largest channels, Belarus of the Brain, and charged him with organizing and participating in public unrest.
The founders of two town-specific Telegram channels, Alyaksandr Andreyev and Konstantin Daletski, also have been detained, along with others. Viewers of the anti-Lukashenka Armiya s Narodom (The Army with the People) channel were interrogated; two also face criminal charges of organizing public unrest.
The administrator of another of Belarus’ largest Telegram channels (Maya Kraina Belarus or My Country Is Belarus), Syarhey Bespalau, left the country.
Despite these crackdowns, Telegram has opted to identify with Belarus’ protest trend – a phenomenon that has spurred its growth in Belarus.
Several days after the start of the election demonstrations on August 9-10, it had launched an official channel for Belarus that offers greater Belarusian-language support, stickers with the red-and-white flags used by many of Lukashenka’s opponents, and the protester motto “Zhyve Belarus!” (“Long Live, Belarus!”).
In a move likely to exasperate the Belarusian leader further, it also has posted a non-scientific poll, supposedly restricted to users with Belarusian phone numbers, in which opposition presidential candidate Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya received 51 percent of Belarus Telegram subscribers’ votes, compared with 4 percent for Lukashenka.
But Telegram is not an information domain for the government’s critics alone.
Eight Belarusian Channels Worth Checking Out:
(listed according to number of subscribers as of August 21, 2020)
Already a darling of international media, the main source of on-the-ground information about Belarus’ protests is NEXTA Live (“nexta,” pronounced as “nekhta,” means “someone” in Belarusian). Currently ranked as the sixth most popular Telegram channel in the world, its 2.2 million subscribers account for nearly a quarter of Belarus’ entire population of 9.5 million people.
That climb started on August 9 itself: As the channel became the top source of information for protesters and onlookers alike, its subscriber based increased by nearly six times in less than a week, according to Telegram Analytics.
Launched in 2018 by YouTube vlogger Stepan Svetlov (Stepan Putilo), the Poland-based NEXTA Live is the sister channel of Belarus Telegram’s number-two-rated channel, NEXTA, intended as a companion for Svetlov’s YouTube channel. A far-less-visited third channel, LUXTA, completes the family.
Distinctions between these three Telegram channels are not immediately apparent; the content is sometimes duplicative. None of the three, though, is about objective journalism. The videos, photos, and text deliver momentary snapshots of Belarus’ political life, but only from the point of view of those who back the protests against Lukashenka’s rule.
“Heart and soul, we’re rooting for Belarus,” Putilo, a student at the University of Silesia, told the Russian-language news site Delfi.ru in a recent interview. “We moved away from some journalistic standards because we want to change the country.”
Putilo, son of a sports commentator for the Warsaw-based Belarusian broadcaster Belsat, co-runs the NEXTA community with several other people, including Raman Pratasevich, a former Belarusian journalist also in Warsaw.
Three days into the protests, Pratasevich, NEXTA Live’s editor-in-chief, told the Russian-language site The Bell that the team had been receiving 10,000 messages per hour with potential information to post.
Their current source of funding for this work is unclear, however. They claim that they stopped selling advertising during the Belarusian protests.
Both Putilo and Pratasevich have a history of near-misses with Belarusian law enforcement.
In his homeland, Belarus, Putilo is wanted on criminal charges of stoking civil unrest, which carry a potential 15-year prison term. In 2018, he narrowly escaped detention in Belarus for supposedly insulting President Lukashenka online.
Pratasevich, a former Belarusian journalist and social-media activist for the Belarusian opposition, has been detained before in Belarus on various charges. (Pratasevich was a 2017-2018 Vaclav Havel Journalism fellow at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, of which Current Time is part.)
Some readers, though, criticize NEXTA Live’s posts for fueling Belarus’ protests from afar, and for its appeals to protesters to “Keep on going! The world is watching! Don’t give up.”
Others welcome the activism, seeing the channel as the best way to organize rallies against official election results without clear protest leaders.
“If not us, then nobody,” Pratasevich told The Bell.
"Women haven't given in. And you?" the caption for this August 21, 2020 NEXTA Live photo asks, repeating the text of the demonstrators' posters.
2. Belarus Of The Brain | Belarus Golovnogo Mozga (roughly 475,000 subscribers)
The founder of this Telegram channel may now be in jail, but Belarus of the Brain nonetheless ranks as the country’s second-largest Telegram channel after the NEXTA group.
Its 28-year-old creator, Ihar Losik, a digital-strategy consultant for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Belarusian Service, was detained on June 25 and charged with allegedly using his Telegram channel “to organize mass riots.” Acting RFE/RL President Daisy Sindelar has demanded Losik’s immediate release and that the government “stop persecuting” those who are informing the public about Belarus’ presidential election. (Current Time is led by RFE/RL in association with the Voice of America.)
Now apparently run by Losik’s friends, the channel offers a mix of protest-focused news largely made up of memes, reposts, and text. Its posted videos, stamped with “belamova,” often appear in media coverage of the Belarusian protests. It tends to avoid NEXTA Live’s impassioned appeals to would-be protesters.
As for NEXTA, the presidential election boosted Belarus of the Brain’s prominence: Within just 10 days, its subscriber base more than doubled, from 200,000 on August 8, the day before Belarus’ presidential vote, to nearly 500,000 on August 21.
"Is this definitely a rally to support the so-called ‘guarantor of sovereignty’?" the caption asks, in reference to the Soviet flag and two black-and-orange flags, associated with support for Russia, displayed at a pro-Lukashenka rally.
It may not have the political leverage of government news agency BelTA, but this privately-owned news portal boasts the largest Telegram presence among Belarusian media outlets.
Now Belarus’ fourth-largest Telegram channel, the portal saw its Telegram subscribers more than quadruple since the August 9 election to over 350,000.
The only independent news service of its size in Belarus, TUT.by has covered the Belarusian election extensively, both via its main channel and a smaller, election-focused channel. It considers itself neutral, but its news coverage often leans opposition-friendly.
The Minsk-based outlet has been a target of police investigations and raids; most recently, in 2018-2019, when editor-in-chief Maryna Zolatava and 15 other journalists were charged with supposedly taking information from a subscriber-only section of BelTA. Fines were imposed on the group, but the charges were dropped.
A TUT.by set of photos from downtown Minsk, shot on the evening of August 19, 2020
Named after Lukashenka’s favorite way to drink tea, this channel used to focus on general-news-related memes, but, these days, it has switched entirely to protest coverage.
Its creator, Ihar Kot, formerly worked on an online Russian community of meme-illustrated news called Lentach (Ribbon). With a partner, he formed Tea With Raspberry Jam around 2015. The channel relies on volunteers to come up with “funny illustrations for the news,” Kot told TUT.by.
Some Belarusians charge that the channel lacks “patriotism” and makes “fun of everything,” but Kot dismisses such sensitivity.
“For example, when we laughed at the European Games, for which we (Belarus) spent a lot of money, we were also told that we were ‘always dissatisfied, everything was beautiful,’ he commented to TUT.by in 2019. “Maybe it is, but we personify some part of Belarusians. At a certain point, it’s not you who forms the audience, but the audience who forms your content … “
“I’m in my happy place,” the headline reads. “Olga Kovalkova, the representative of [Svyatlana] Tsikhanouskaya’s headquarters, came to Akrestina (a Minsk prison). She called on the detention center’s door phone, but they responded that ‘There’re no political prisoners here.’”
As in Belarusian politics, Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya and Alyaskandr Lukashenka’s campaigns are facing off on Telegram, too.
In Russian, aside from the content of their PR, the difference between these two channels lies in the gender endings of the word “First”: The feminine “Pool” – an apparent reference to “media pool” -- represents Tsikhanouskaya; the masculine represents Lukashenka.
The pro-Lukashenka Pool of the First surfaced first in November 2019. Its 0001 branding, based on the license plate of the president’s car, and content that likely could only come from someone close to Lukashenka implied to some that the channel was connected to the media pool of the country’s “first person.”.
The independent TV channel BelSat found evidence linking the channel to Natalia Eismont, Lukashenko’s press secretary, but no official confirmation of this alleged connection exists.
Among other statements, the channel’s stickers assert that “The OMON (riot police) is a way to treat mass stupidity” or declare “Shame to Traitors!”
In late July 2020, the second Pool of the First channel appeared. It was marketed as the Telegram channel for what is known as the “joint opposition”: presidential candidate Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya and the presidential campaigns of jailed banker Viktar Babaryka and self-exiled entrepreneur Valer Tsapkala.
Tsikhanouskaya, a homemaker, decided to join the presidential race after her husband, popular videoblogger Syarhey Tsikhanouski, was detained and could not register his own candidacy.
Feeding off the popularity of Tsikhanouski’s Telegram channel (A Country To Live In, now with nearly 100,000 subscribers), a critical walkaround of Belarus, Tsikhanouskaya’s Pool of the First now has surpassed its pro-Lukashenka rival for the number of subscribers.
Channel Sample | Pool Of The First [Woman] :
In this August 20, 2020 video clip, Tsikhanouskaya states that she met with Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Reinsalu to ask him to raise the issue of threats against the Belarusian opposition’s Coordination Council before the United Nations’ Security Council.
“The international community is obliged to respect the rights of the Belarusian people and to protect those who need protection from possible threats and illegal persecution,” Tsikhanouskaya said.
Channel Sample | Pool Of The First [Man] :
Pool of the First [Man] illustrates a news headline that Lukashenka will be barred from entering Lithuania with the song Sanya Will Stay With Us. "Sanya" is the shortened version of Lukashenka’s first name, Alyaksandr. The song refers to Lukashenka's expected reelection as president.
7.Yellow Plums | Zhyoltye Slivy (roughly 40,000 subscribers)
Yellow Plums appeared on Belarus’ Telegram in late May 2020, just as the presidential campaign was getting started. It declared “hype” as its mission, starting with the election. It routinely publishes leaks or other information critical of Lukashenka’s opponents, yet its owner is anonymous, and it has no clear-cut link to the government.
In April 2020, President Lukashenka claimed that “it is not our way” to create Telegram-channels and spread “yellowish (scandalous) information there.” Yellow Plums, however, largely does exactly that.
Its name is a play on words: “slivy” in Russian means both “plums” and “leaks.”
Most recently, it gained widespread attention for being the first to publish presidential candidate Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya’s video appeal to Belarusians to refrain from protests against the official presidential election results. Central Election Commission Chairwoman Lidiya Yermoshina has since confirmed that the video was shot in her office, where Tsikhanouskaya had gone to file a complaint about the vote count.
Tsikhanouskaya’s campaign charged that members of the security services, present in the office, filmed the candidate’s statement after threatening her. This has not been confirmed.
How the video reached Yellow Plums is unclear.
Channel Sample :
In an August 11, 2020 video recorded in Central Election Commission Chairwoman Lidiya Yermoshina’s office, Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, states that “Belarus has made its choice” and asks for the protests against the official presidential vote results to end. Tsikhanouskaya supporters maintain she made this statement under duress. The video first appeared on Yellow Plums.
8. Shraibman (roughly 30,000 subscribers)
If you’re seeking a more thorough analysis of Belarus’ political situation, this channel by Belarusian political analyst Artyom Shraibman regularly dissects the situation on the ground.
A TUT.by columnist and Carnegie Moscow Center commentator who occasionally appears on Current Time TV, Shraibman is not pro-government, but takes a critical stance toward all of Belarus’ political players.
Channel Sample :
Analyst Artyom Shraibman gives 10 reasons why Russia won't intervene militarily in Belarus.
Editor’s Note: A co-writer of this guide had work experience at TUT.by, one of the featured channels.