If you have followed the protests in Belarus, chances are you’ve seen the word “Nexta”. It often appears in the news, with watermarks pasted all over live videos of the protests. Nexta, translated as “someone” from Belarusian, is the name of the Telegram-channel that has become the leading platform covering – and coordinating – the protests.

Nexta’s growth has been unprecedented – in just 10 days it went from a couple of hundred thousands followers to 2.1 million subscribers [Editor’s note: the subscriber numbers move fast, so expect them to be out of date by the time you read them] – an astonishing number for the country with just 9.5 millions of citizens. 

As of August 20, its daily reach was around 27 million views, with the average post getting some 700K. Nexta Live, the full name of the channel, is now the biggest Russian-language Telegram-channel in the world!

A Warsaw-based medium, it became the go-to source of information in the country where the internet had been blocked in the first days of protest. The Fix looks behind the story and context of Nexta’s success to try to understand how Belarus protests became the world’s first Telegram revolution.

How decades of state censorship made Telegram a natural platform for protesters 

A rigged election has sparked unprecedented mass protests in Belarus. “Europe’s last dictatorship” has been ruled by Alexander Lukashenko since 1994, but a fraudulent vote, together with economic hardship and poor handling of the pandemic prompted people to take to the streets. 

State media censorship has been rampant during Lukashenko’s 26-year rule, creating a media-market desert (when compared to most European countries). As we wrote last week, the Belarusian media market has forced many independent media outlets into real or virtual exile – operating from abroad or using various technological solutions to circumvent censorship.

As the protests had widened on the election day, the situation became much worse – the government blocked the internet almost completely for a couple of days (Belarusian authorities deny their involvement in the shutdown). Independent media outlets covering Belarus from the exile were not available, neither were Facebook and Twitter. According to widespread reports, only Telegram, a cloud-based messaging service, was working.

Telegram has gradually turned into a media platform of sorts over the past few years, notably thanks to the feature of channels, “a tool for broadcasting messages to large audiences”. Another distinctive feature of the app is its focus on privacy and security. While there are concerns about Russian government access to the data, Telegram is generally seen as more secure than some of its most prominent rivals. Arguably more important is that fact that, thanks to its technology, Telegram is notoriously hard to block by state censors.

All this made Nexta Live particularly well-poised to become the hub for protest coordination. Unparalleled speed and the ability to operate outside of normal journalistic process was the winning combo: readers sent channel editors large amounts of information, including scoops from within the government, which the Belarusian media wouldn’t be able to publish. At the same time, Nexta would still try to check the information it received, investigate, and find confirmation through other sources. 

“We were the only ones not under the control of the Belarusian authorities”, – said editor-in-chief of the channel Roman Protasevych in the interview for BBC.

How Nexta Live works

Nexta plays two roles in the protests. On the one hand, it covers the protests — the channel reports on exclusive news, which are not available or not allowed on other outlets. On the other hand, Nexta also helps coordinate the protests. The channel shares information like calls for help, maps of police locations, addresses where protests can hide from law enforcement, as well as contacts of lawyers and human rights activists.

The channel’s name is pronounced “Nehta”. In Belarusian that means “someone”. According to the Nexta’s supporters, this name reflects the essence of the project. Tens of thousands of Belarusians, from ordinary protesters to dissenters within law enforcement agencies, share information with the channel anonymously and in a secure fashion.

The story behind this channel goes back to five years ago when a 17-years-old student Stepan Putylo (aka Svetlov) decided to create a Youtube-channel for his musical project. The first video was his cover for Russian music band Splin song “No choice”, which he devoted to the 2015 presidential election in Belarus. Later, the channel published investigations about corruption. By 2018, a Telegram channel, Nexta Live, was created.

In February 2018, there was an attempt to initiate a criminal case against Putylo under Article 368 of the Criminal Code of Belarus, which prohibits “insult of the President” for a video on YouTube, allegedly on the complaint of an unknown citizen. Since then Putylo hasn’t visited Belarus.

The team of Nexta consists of four people. The project is led by the founder Stepan Putylo and editor-in-chief Roman Protasevych. Both of them asked for political asylum in Poland and now live there. Two more people work for the channel anonymously.

Over the past several years, Nexta gradually developed into an independent media outlet which uses many platforms for spreading information, though not a website. The team claims that “Nexta is the first Belarusian media of the 21st century which successfully proves that having a centralized site is an optional condition for the success of a media project”.

Apart from the main Telegram channel Nexta Live, the platforms are:

  • The News Telegram channel Nexta (more than 760 thousand subscribers).
  • YouTube channel Nexta (more than 495 thousand subscribers)
  • Twitter account Nexta (more than 56 thousand readers)

The project is supported by ads and donations.