When Stasiapan Putsila started a YouTube channel six years ago as part of a homework assignment, he couldn’t have imagined it would become the focus of the Belarusian president’s anger.
But that’s exactly what happened after that project, called Nexta, broadcasts protests against Alexander Lukashenko and his subsequent crackdown against civil society. NeXT flirts with both journalism and propaganda, and as a result, it is at the forefront of a new ecosystem of disgruntled media that use the messaging platform Telegram to shed light on what is often referred to as Europe’s last dictatorship. .
why did we write this
How do you speak the truth when your sources and audience are subjected to tyranny?
The defining moment for Nexta came in August 2020, when protests broke out across Belarus following controversial elections, giving Mr Lukashenko a sixth term as president. At the time, Nexta already had a solid following on Telegram and quickly became the center of protests in Belarus, which it coordinated and covered.
Mr Putsila acknowledged that he has no ordinary journalism project, given his protest coordination efforts and the absence of journalists on the ground.
“I can’t say that what we do is journalism,” he says. “We have journalists who collect information, but the information is not collected on the spot as it is impossible. People send us It is a new kind of journalism which relies on information given by the people.”
Warsaw, Poland; and Basel, Switzerland
You wouldn’t know it just by looking at it, but the yellow building known as the Belarusian House in the middle of the Polish capital is a source of great dismay for Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko.
That’s because it’s home to the offices of the Telegram channel Nexta, which since last year has broadcast protests against Mr Lukashenko and his subsequent crackdown against civil society that jailed hundreds of dissidents and media professionals. Was. Nexta’s coverage has also placed its own staff in Mr Lukashenko’s crosshairs, as demonstrated by the dramatic arrest of its former editor-in-chief on Sunday when fighter jets forced flight.
Operations outside Poland protect Nexata’s staff to some extent – although police still keep a protective eye on the Belarusian house – but the high stakes facing Mr. Lukashenko are constantly on the mind of Nexata’s founder, Stasiapan Putsila. “I am inspired by the heroes who are now in prison, who hit the road despite the repression,” he says. “I am inspired by those who, regardless of the situation, want to fight for the future, not just for themselves.”
why did we write this
How do you tell the truth when your sources and audience are subject to tyranny?
When it comes to Mr. Lukashenko’s regime, Mr. Putsila and his allies take the “fight for the future” nexta (pronounced “nyekta”) seriously. This places Nexta in a position that messes with both journalism and propaganda. Their crowdsourcing methods depend on the trust of those who risk it all to tell the truth. The result leaves Nexta at the forefront of a new ecosystem of disgruntled media that use Telegram to shed light on what is often referred to as Europe’s last dictatorship.
“We have never declared political neutrality,” says Tadeusz Gizan, the current editor-in-chief. “Our goal has always been to overthrow Lukashenko’s rule. We are waging an information war against him, his system. However, we do not lie in this war.”
More activism than journalism?
Mr. Putsila launched Nexta on YouTube in 2015 as part of a homework assignment while studying film in Katowice, Poland. But he came to the attention of authorities in 2018 when he posted a video titled “Luka Sherlock”, challenging Mr Lukashenko’s claim that he once helped solve a crime. Mr Putsila was accused of insulting the president and violating copyright law in a criminal case he credits with raising the channel’s profile. “It added to the popularity of my channel,” he says. “I am partly indebted to the authorities for this.”
The defining moment for Nexta came in August 2020 when protests erupted all over Belarus following disputed elections, giving Mr. Lukashenko a sixth term as president. At the time, Nexta already had a solid following on Telegram, a secure platform chosen for its resistance to censorship and its ability to reach large numbers of people. With only four Warsaw-based teams working round the clock, Nexta quickly became the center of protests in Belarus, which it coordinated and covered.
The team pulled photos, videos and leaked documents to capture the days of street rebellion and police violence. Mr Putsila acknowledged that he had no ordinary journalism project, given the absence of journalists on the ground and their efforts to coordinate protests before heavy-handed action.
“I can’t say that what we do is journalism, although there are many different genres in journalism,” he says. “We have an editorial office, we publish content, we have journalists who collect information, but information is not collected on the spot because it is impossible. People send us This is a new kind of journalism that relies on information given by people. “
Today Nexta lives on YouTube, Twitter and Facebook, with the biggest followers on Telegram, where it has over a million subscribers.
There are no hard and fast rules about what gets published, but the last one comes from Mr Gizzan, who considers himself more active than a journalist. “We have people with different political views in the editorial team,” says Mr. Gizhan, a dual Polish-Belarusian citizen. “We have so much work to do that we don’t even have time to think about some internal code. But that doesn’t mean we don’t follow ethical principles.”
Examples of material Nexata decided not to publish are medical files and pictures of Mr. Lukashenko’s unnamed fourth son, who says he was sent to an orphanage. Nexta also decided against flagging the daughter of a prominent regime supporter who is studying in Warsaw. “The values that guide me in choosing the topic are whether they will highlight the actions of officials such as corruption, and whether it will be interesting and helpful to the people,” says Mr. Putsila.
Nexta also performs as much fact-checking as possible, if only to filter out false content that is implicated. “We have to verify the information because we have a lot of fake news created by the authorities to show that we cannot be trusted,” says Mr. Putsila.
“A new form of journalism”
Critics say Nexta’s tone has nothing to do with professional journalism, crosses boundaries in political activism, and uses superior language for propaganda.
Belarusian journalist Diana Ratkevich argues that journalism and political activism should be kept separate. “We must remember that we will be responsible for the quality of journalism in an independent Belarus,” says Ms. Ratkevich, who covered the bloody protests in Belarus for the Polish government-funded satellite TV channel Belsat TV. “We have to maintain the standards.”
Ksenia Hlyubovich, a documentary photographer based in Minsk, credits Nexta with doing important work during the first months of the protests, when many media were blocked, even though they didn’t always verify their information. But “I just don’t read them because police [national police] can check your phone and your Telegram account, and if they see you follow them you can be arrested, as Nexta is considered by the regime as an extremist group in Belarus,” he said. says.
Nexta is on a learning curve when it comes to creating content and fact-checking their content, says Joerg Forbrig, senior fellow and director for Central and Eastern Europe at the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Berlin. Although his work style is not always up to the standards of Western media, it is breaking new ground. “They represent a new form of journalism,” he says. “It’s basically a combination of active journalism, a news coverage that also calls for action, and a crowd-sourced, civic journalism.”
Mr Forebrig says that despite harassment from anyone shown accessing the channel, Nexta has managed to maintain a solid following inside Belarus, a feat no small feat. “The increase in penalties for labeling as extremists and distributing extremist content is designed to drive people away from NEXTA and comparable channels.”
The extent to which Mr. Lukashenko is willing to silence the media came to mind this month. The first was the state’s seizure on Minsk’s largest independent news site, Tut.Boy, which caused some waves in the west. This was followed by the dramatic arrest of Nexta co-founder Raman Pratasevich, who was pulled from a RyanAir flight with his girlfriend after being forced to land in Minsk over a suspected security threat. This was followed by laws banning media coverage of protests and empowering prosecutors to shut down the Internet.
With the protest movement in Belarus badly affected, Nexta is selling with a reduced workforce of around 10 Belarusians, down from 20 since the protests in August last year. Recent fundraising efforts contributed less than $500, and advertising revenue has declined dramatically. “Our channel has been declared a terrorist channel in Belarus, so people and companies working with us can also be considered extremists,” Mr. Putsila says.
Nexta has responded by internationalizing its work and message, including making policy recommendations on how the West should pressurize Belarus to arrest Mr. Pratasevich. The Nexta team thinks his seizure will not work as Mr. Lukashenko would have planned.
“The regime later takes them hostage to trade with the West,” said Putsila, days before his former ally became one of 426 political prisoners. “But it will not work this time. The repressions are on such an unimaginable scale that the West will no longer want to be with Lukashenko. ”
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