Since the protests started on August 9 Belarus has been a digital battleground. Telegram proved to be one of the most valuable resources for independent media.
Authorities attacked the media both directly and through legal and administrative measures. They also attempted to cut information at the source, slowing internet connections to a trickle.
Throughout this time, one of medias’ most reliable resources has been Telegram (TG for short), with it’s light data transfers and – according to its founders – its hacker-proof setup. Pavel Durov, the messenger’s creator claimed they used anti-censorship measures developed specifically for Belarus.
The most visible face of what has been dubbed by some as the Telegram revolution is the popular TG channel NEXTA, which publishes information from subscribers.
But Belarusian media TG channels also increased. For instance views for Euroradio grew more than 35 times in September vs. July.
The Fix analyzed the five biggest Belarus independent media to see what impact the protests had on their TG channels.
BELSAT is the only independent TV channel based in Poland that broadcasts in Belarusian (it also includes a digital site and social media accounts).
Tut.By is the country’s most popular online portal and a heavyweight in digital services. The Ministry of Information recently initiated an attempt to deprive them of registration as a mass media.
Euroradio is a non-profit FM, satellite and online radio (with a website and social media) that aims to provide listeners with relevant, verified information about events in Belarus and the world.
Nasha Niva is a Belarusian weekly newspaper, founded more than 100 years ago. It has never been a state publication under the supervision of an authoritarian or totalitarian government.
RFERL Belarus (also known as Radio Svaboda) is a Belarusian-language division of Radio Liberty which broadcasts from outside Belarus and is funded by the United States.
Audience shift to telegram
Although the biggest media already all had TG channels, the protests truly invigorated the platform as a primary place to share content and make reposts from other channels.
While none of the media surveyed finished September even close to NEXTA’s over 2 million subscribers, almost all saw subscriber numbers jump almost (or over) tenfold (RFERL was a laggard, with only threefold growth)
This impressive growth would not have happened without a substantial increase the available content on TG. RFERL Belarus, and BELSAT showed the biggest increase, both going from less than 450 posts in July to over 5,000 in September.
But others also seized upon the opportunity.
“Before the elections, we viewed Telegram as just another social network, like Facebook for those who are younger. But when the Internet was turned off on August 9, and the TG continued to work, we began to post there in live mode, and we continue to this day,” Euroradio Editor-in-Chief Pavel Sverdlov told The Fix, adding that “they focus on exclusive content there and try not duplicate content of other channels. Only if there is some important news.”
He also said that Telegram’s popularity has made journalists think about how to format and convey information to the Telegram audience and how to create appropriate content for the channel. This in turn has refueled reposting as a way to meet the rising demand for information.
Higher numbers of subscribers and more posting have naturally driven up the numbers of views. These skyrocketed into the tens of millions, even for some of the smaller players amid the top-5 (with the leader, Tut.By, reaching an incredible 415 million in August).
While some TG channels have seen lower numbers in September, it seems that Telegram has secured itself as a fixture of the Belarusian media market. Moreover, as authorities show no willingness to back down and further measures are being taken to fight against independent media, it seems likely that Durov’s creation will continue to play a central role.
Jakub Parusinski and Zakhar Protsiuk also contributed to the story