While governments across the globe were ordering citizens to stay home in the fight against COVID-19, Belarus’s longtime leader, Alexander Lukashenko, was telling Belarusians to get on with life as normal. As one of Europe’s last leaders to recognise that the virus exists – let alone kills – the strongman has ignored calls for lockdown measures, suggesting vodka, sauna treatments or tractor rides instead.
But Belarusians know that infection rates keep rising, and that the death toll continues to climb. Not because they have heard it from their mainstream media – which was brought to heel long ago – but because they have found a new source of information: a group of bloggers that are telling the COVID-19 story the way it really is.
“Due to censorship, Belarusians are extremely limited when it comes to accessing accurate information, especially from state institutions. During this pandemic, they are providing statistics that don’t accurately reflect the number of deaths and infections. In this context, it’s extremely important to have access to alternative sources of news, and that’s why bloggers are so popular,” Katerina Andreeva, a reporter for Belsat TV, told The Listening Post.
Stepan Svyatlou – better known as NEXTA – is Belarus’s most famous blogger. Videos and posts on his YouTube and Telegram channels regularly generate more than a million views. The past few months, he has focused on Lukashenko’s mishandling of the COVID-19 crisis. But his efforts to hold those in power to account stretch far beyond this pandemic.
“I cover crimes committed by officials and civil servants. I try to publish what isn’t being printed by the state newspapers, or aired by the state broadcasters. We publish documents that are leaked to us by government insiders – information that discredits the authorities and lowers their ratings,” says Svyatlou.
The popularity of bloggers like NEXTA is making Lukashenko increasingly nervous, not least because their followers have started to mobilise on the streets. And with the presidential election just a couple of months away, that is the kind of dissent Lukashenko can do without.
Andrei Bastunets, chair of the Belarusian Association of Journalists, explains that “the authorities have come to understand that blogs like Stepan Svyatlou’s NEXTA, or Sergei Tikhanouski’s Country for Life, don’t just spread information, but the bloggers themselves are becoming the centre of attention, and they can actually influence politics, not just talk about it.”
The Listening Post’s Johanna Hoes reports on Belarusian bloggers, and their efforts to bring about political change that is long overdue.
Stepan Svyatlou – Founder, NEXTA
Andrei Bastunets – Chair, Belarusian Association of Journalists
Katerina Andreeva – Reporter, Belsat TV