For days Belarusians had little information about the unrest plaguing their streets, with state television making little effort to report it and other websites and social media offline.
But one news source that has drawn growing numbers of people to the country of 9.5 million is a channel from the popular Telegram messaging app called Nexta. Pronounced NEKH-ta, it has managed to bypass many restrictions.
On Wednesday, opposition websites were back online, but for three nights there was silence.
How Nexta got to its audience
“We are sitting in a bunker” is how one Belarusian described the situation.
Meanwhile, hundreds of messages are posted for Nexta’s 1.5 million subscribers. A riot police vehicle is seen breaking into a crowd, police are caught on camera beating a protester on the ground, gasoline bombs are thrown – this news is visible and uncensored.
The Telegram messenger has only been available sporadically over Wi-Fi, but its founder Pavel Durov says it has activated “anti-censorship tools”.
“An Internet shutdown is a huge mistake by the authorities,” Roman Protasevich, editor-in-chief of Nexta, told BBC Russian. “Telegram has picked up almost all Belarusians who flood the streets in an attempt to bring change to the country. ”
With most of the opposition leaders out of the country, the channel played a key role in coordinating the protests. But the more established opposition media are wary of such a militant news source whose messages are difficult to verify.
Nexta has posted appeals for help, maps showing the whereabouts of police officers, addresses where protesters can hide and contacts for lawyers and human rights activists.
He also advised subscribers on how to bypass Internet blocking using proxies and other means.
Before the third night of protests, he gave detailed instructions to the protesters on how to act in the streets.
What is Nexta?
It doesn’t have a website, and only a small editorial team of four in Warsaw, but it does have a YouTube and Telegram channel, and an information-hungry audience.
Its editor calls himself “a pioneer of cyber journalism”, where video and photo content is “as brief, informative and illustrative as possible”.
Founded five years ago as YouTube music by teenager Stepan Putilo, also known as Stepan Svetlov, it translates from Belarusian to “someone”.
The first video was a sarcastic cover of a song, poking fun at the 2015 campaign before President Alexander Lukashenko was re-elected. “For 20 years, there was no choice, only a worn tire”.
Then he turned to bribery, theft and drunken driving of officials, promising “honest information about the reality in Belarus”.
“It was my hobby. I made funny videos for the birthdays of my loved ones. Then I decided to pile up all the rubbish of Lukashenko Belarus, ”Putilo told the Human Rights Charter 97 website.
The Nexta Live telegram channel surfaced in 2018, and the following year a documentary about the autocratic Belarusian leader drew nearly three million views on YouTube.
“The film tells in detail how Lukashenko stole our country, our dreams, our freedom, our future and 25 years of life,” said Stepan Putilo.
A Belarusian court declared the film to be “extremist”.
But Nexta’s Telegram channel stood out and the 2020 election took it to a new and bigger audience.
“Who in 2020 needs a site that an official of the Ministry of Information can block with a click? »Ask its founders. Its Telegram posts have attracted hundreds of thousands of views, more than censorship-stricken websites such as Tut.by.
What does he publish?
Taking mainly user-generated content, Nexta uses anonymous material from all over Belarus.
The platform is also secure, says Protasevich, who claims the stories they publish will never be shown on public television.
Like Stepan Putilo, he lives in Poland, where he applied for political asylum. Despite managing the channel from outside Belarus, he insists that posts are checked for factual accuracy and he sees no problem in supporting the Warsaw protests.
In a matter of hours, her audience grew by 100,000 people on election night, then after two nights of protests, she amassed more than a million.
He says that although the channel mainly uses the information sent by users, he rejects the criticisms of these journalists in Belarus. They say mistakes were made, and they point to his apparent ability to coordinate protests.
Hours after Nexta announced that protester Yevgeny Zaichkin had died in the early hours of Monday, he told Reuters news agency he survived a brutal police crossing.
Anna Kaltygina, of the opposition website Tut.by, believes Nexta devalues the work of the media by publishing unverified information and causing revolution on the Telegram channel. “When working in Poland, it is difficult to verify messages coming from Belarus,” she told the Echo Moscow website.
Nexta editor-in-chief says what matters to him is bloodshed in the streets. “Do I feel responsible for what we publish? Only in terms of whether it will bring people closer to victory and the end of the dictatorship. “
Who finances it?
There is some confusion here. The channel has no advertising and only the names of Stepan Putilo and Roman Protasevich are known.
Mr Putilo has said in the past that the money came from supporters as well as an earlier university scholarship.
However, her colleague told the BBC that they only got advertising and no donations.
A Belarusian petitions website recently called for public funding for Nexta, arguing that it is far more useful than public television.