On Sunday, the Ryanair flight journalist Roman Protasevich was on was intercepted by a Belarusan fighter jet, and he was arrested in Minsk. After news of the incident moved from world headlines to the attention of the EU, numerous international travel sanctions to the country were announced.
Later this week, Belarusian state television released a short video of Protasevich supposedly admitting to organising mass civil disobediences. The footage showed Protasevich, who had been living between Poland and Lithuania, with suspected bruise markings on his face.
For the summer issue, as part of a feature on digital activist movements that have emerged from lockdown, we spoke to 26 year-old Protesavich about his work with Nexta, an independent Belarusan media network whose Telegram channel became the main source of information-sharing amid anti-government protests last year.
“At the peak of it all, we were getting around 1,000 messages, photos and videos a minute” says Protasevich, who was Nexta’s Editor-in-Chief until November 2020, and was subsequently classified as a “terrorist-extremist“ by the KGB. Started by Polish blogger Stsiapan Putsila in 2015 when he was 16, Nexta works by gathering information from inside sources, tip-offs, and protesters and organising it into a feed.
“Even in an absolutely autocratic regime like Belarus, they just can’t control the internet,“ he said of the movement, which escalated in August 2020 to become the biggest pro-democracy uprising in the country’s history. “It is probably ahead of the whole world, because we showed that it can’t be contained by authorities. Everybody knew that Nexta was the only platform to get real news, to see what is really happening, especially when the internet was completely shut down.”
“Even in an absolutely autocratic regime like Belarus, they just can’t control the internet“ – Roman Protasevich
“The interesting thing that happened last year is that a lot of people in their 60s or 70s came to the messengers and social media. Now in Belarus, it’s not shocking to see a 65 year-old using Telegram with a VPN. It showed a new era of spreading democracy through social media... If we don't (encourage people to) stand up for their rights, who will?”
“I can’t say that Nexta started a revolution in Belarus – other Telegram channels were working (to spread information) as well,“ he continues. “But I can say that that it is the first revolution where the people in power were journalists, because journalists helped to create new censuses for people of different political angles. It was a moment of truth when I understood that, okay, our channels – not just Nexta, but all the others – have real power now.“