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Features

Russian Journalists Help Belarus State Media While Free Media Flees to Telegram

September 4, 2020
Emil Filtenborg and Stefan Weichert
5 min read
Belarusian authorities have arrested about 20 journalists in Minsk and expelled several foreign journalists
Belarusian authorities have arrested about 20 journalists in Minsk and expelled several foreign journalists

Several state journalists in Belarus have quit working after facing editorial pressure, decisions that have left Belarus state media vulnerable and in trouble. Responding to the crisis, Russian journalists have arrived to help out, while the frontlines in a media war between the West, Belarusians, and Russia is becoming more visible. 

 

An unknown number of journalists working in Belarus state media have resigned in recent weeks. They claim they have only been allowed to publish official information disseminated by the Belarus government during recent protests. Thirty-one-year-old Vadim Shundalov told Euronews he quit his job at state-run Belarus Today because “everything has become just lies, lies and lies” He is far from the only one. As well as journalists, anchors, and technical crew have also left their jobs.  

And no, several reports have revealed that Russian journalists who usually work for Russian state-run news outlets such as RT, have replaced the Belarusian state journalists to ensure that Belarus' state-run media can continue to operate as usual. This was later confirmed by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko: “I've even asked Russians to lend me reporters to cover the president's work and set an example of good work,” he said.

IranWire has previously described how Belarus has become a battleground for disinformation. Since the presidential election on August 9, protesters have taken the streets in thousands demanding that Lukashenko step down after what they say was a rigged election.  Aliaksandre Herasimenka, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Oxford, told IranWire that Russian media had previously shown support for protesters. 

According to Franak Viacorka, a Belarusian journalist and non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council, that support appears to have now come to an end. After it became obvious that the protests were threatening Lukashenko’s rule, Russia has helped the Belarusian regime;  otherwise, it risked losing the battle of information.

“Right now, we see coordination between the secret service in Belarus and the state-run media with Russian support,” explains Viacorka. “We see that people of interest to the secret service are targeted by the media, which create mistrust and misunderstandings.”

Viacorka says he himself is being targeted by Russian media, which claims that he is helping the West. On August 19, Russian RT, for example, published an op-ed singling out Viacorka as promoting protests

 

Russia Offers a Different Perspective

Recently, in addition to helping Belarus state-run media, Russian media outlets such as RT have also been running stories with a different perspective than seen in Western reporting. In a report on August 25, RT tells the story of how the families of Belarusian security forces are facing threats from protesters. While it might be true, it differs from reporting by most Western media, which has been focusing on the violent actions of these security forces. 

In the RT story, RT speaks to a man it describes as the Belarusian police officer who became famous after a photo went viral of him standing next to a protester lying unconscious on the ground. The picture became a symbol of police brutality, according to RT, but the real story was actually something else. 

“It turned out later that he had [suffered] severe alcohol and drug overdose,” the officer, who is apparently standing next to the protester in the photo, told RT through his mask. “We had the guy when he felt really bad. No matter how badly he behaved that evening, we tried to get him to the ambulance a hundred meters from us. He was unconscious; he just laid down.”

However, neither the officer or RT has provided any proof that the man had an overdose, and after a short clip in which the man explains that the was attacked, RT continued to show headlines from CNN, BBC, and The New York Times about the protests. RT concludes that these media have become polarized, before the report again zooms in on the police officers’ stories of being threatened.

“Previously, Russia has not been directly supporting Lukashenko. In the 2010 election, Russia attacked Lukashenko very badly. During the election in 2015, it was more mildly,” says Viacorka, “But after the first week of this year’s election, we have seen Russia be his biggest supporter.”

In recent days, Belarusian authorities have arrested about 20 journalists in Minsk, several of whom were released after three hours. The next day, Reuters reported that 17 journalists from leading media outlets including the BBC, Reuters, AFP, and [German broadcaster] ARD had their accreditation revoked. 

According to several reports, more than 7,000 people have been detained by police during protests, resulting in at least three deaths and multiple people being injured. Many are still missing. 

 

A War on Telegram

However, the real media war seems to be fought on the secure app Telegram, where several opposition groups have attracted many followers. Among them are the opposition group Nexta Live, with 2.1 million followers, which publishes content about demonstrations, as well as the daily plan for opposition protests. Nexta describes itself as a “decentralized media organization.”

Viacorka says that Russia and Belarus are trying to build up their media presence on Telegram, seemingly trying to buy up engaging and exciting channels to gain followers quickly.

“We don’t know how successful they have been yet,” says Viacorka. “They have tried to buy Telegram groups belonging to the opposition, but they seem not to understand that these groups are driven by passion and are not for sale. Instead, they try to make up their groups, which are not so big yet, but they are growing by the day.

“Russian media have helped modernize Belarusian state media, making it more effective,” he says, adding: “While this is happening, Western reporters are being thrown out of Belarus.”

 

Also in this series: 

Russia Accused of Being a Bad Sport in Race to Find Vaccine

The Information Quagmire: Researchers Slam Russia’s ‘Proxy’ Disinformers

Factfile: Has Russia developed a coronavirus vaccine?

Belarusian Protesters Gain Surprising Ally in Russian Media

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