Summary of the video chat meeting on Belarus held on 20 August 2020 with recommendations from the off-the-record part
The ongoing developments in Belarus provide a big room for speculation. Everyone, including the protesters, were caught by surprise by the scale of the protest. After the presidential election on Sunday, 9 August 2020, Belarus faces demonstrations against Aliaksandr Lukashenko’s rule. In the latest turn of events, a massive opposition rally called for an ouster of Lukashenko, while he was also booed by the workers of the MKZT truck factory in Minsk. Just days before, the authorities released hundreds of imprisoned protesters which was interpreted as a sign of a change in the authorities’ tactics after the loud international reactions.
Hence, this Visegrad Insight Breakfast discussion aimed at providing a critical map over the situation by speaking with prominent Belarusian experts who are following the situation on the ground. The event attracted approximately 90 high profile diplomats, experts, and journalists from across the Atlantic and Russia, who participated in the exchange. As a starting point, the experts discussed the functioning of the information networks in the country and mused upon the question how the Belarusians distinguish what true and false information is. Further on, in the off-the record part, the discussion with all participants moved to wider political developments and strategic ahead.
- Information space in the country must be ensured with all efforts backing up existing channels of information and regaining information sovereignty by the society in the official media channels.
- Urgency of action – however good a roundtable effort could be, it risks watering down the momentum and enabling a military junta instead.
- International organisations’ support to Belarusian civil society is crucial and the time to act is now – especially when Belarus labor unions are in desperate need of technical and moral support while being exposed to hard pressure and intimidation.
- Media and civil society organisations need to find a safe harbour in the neighbour-countries of Belarus which are member-states of the EU, with the respective governments taking quick and decisive diplomatic steps to shield the press from persecution.
- Crimes of torture and other unlawful use of force in Belarus, including death cases, must be not only condemned but brought under criminal investigation – also by international organisations.
- Belarusian economy – in a dire situation and not in spite but because of the international pandemic – needs a sort of a bailout that would combine structural reforms and investment for the post-pandemic future. This would not happen unless democratic principles are established.
In the opening part of the discussion (on-the-record) three experts shared their insights specifically on the public space in Belarus. Belarusian citizens were able to mobilise thanks to the information sovereignty obtained, even partially, via the online platform Telegram.
Franak Viačorka, Belarusian journalist, Vice President of the Digital Communication Network and consultant for U.S. Agency for Global Media, defined the situation as revolutionary in terms of the usage of digital technologies. In the context of a governmental information blackout, it was Telegram which allowed the citizens of Belarus to self-organise. Moreover, he claimed that Lukashenko underestimated the importance of the digital technologies and invested heavily in state-sponsored channels: television and radio. The social media infrastructure, on the contrary, was built by the civil society, independent agents and media for many years – which now appears as functional, not only in terms of coverage, but also in terms of crowdfunding. The government, in turn, tried to neutralise these channels, by arresting administrators of these groups for instance, but the coordinators of these groups managed to escape by leaving the country or changing their identity. And despite all the intimidation and arrests, these channels are still functioning.
Katsiaryna Shmatsina, Political Analyst at the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies, mapped the network of pro-Russian regional media, which operates in Belarus for a few years, as part of the media monitoring research she is conducting with her team. The media outlets which are hosted, controlled, and financed by Russia are relatively small and like each other – having, as well, a similar logic of sharing the news. These news sections, interestingly enough, are quite accurate – as reports on the ongoing events. The blog sections, however, are the space where the interesting content emerges. During the parliamentary campaign, a year ago, the key narratives in these sections were against the Belarusian opposition. In addition, this rhetoric is strongly pro-Russian, claiming, for instance, that the integration with Russia is beneficial for the Belarusians – without a danger to the Belarusian sovereignty. Many media experts claim that, regarding the ongoing protests, these networks were not used in their full capacities. However, Shmatsina stressed that at this point it is not very clear how these networks will be used in future. One trajectory which can be mapped is the not so clear support for Lukashenko and the rising number of blog posts by analysts, experts, interviews who criticise Lukashenko for the harsh detention and crackdown on the opposition. The new narrative on the Russian role in the crisis is focused to prove the role of Russia as a guarantor, a centre for moderating the crisis.
Serge Kharytonau, Expert at the International Strategic Action Network for Security, highlighted that the ongoing situation in Belarus in unprecedented in terms of the targeting and harassment of media workers. The issue with the internet blockade in the wake of the elections is a prominent example, as many citizens, who were not prepared for the blockade, were shocked with the police violence which was hidden from them and happened in the meantime. This blockade also posed a serious challenge for the journalists, as they lost the connections and could not place their news. The police brutality also extended to journalists: up to 70 journalists were detained and one female journalist, for instance, was intentionally shot with a rubber bullet at a short range by the police.
In terms of reliable channels for information, it is Telegram in the Belarusian context as the government cannot interfere this network – even when the internet was blocked in the country. Even so the government tries to pick up the speed of the Telegram channels and position itself on the network, it fails to do so because their narratives and messages are stuck in the 1990s and 2000s.
Final issue is the television as a source of information, still used by up to 90 percent of the Belarusians. The future of the television is still open as, on one hand, it is slowly losing its influence and, on the other hand, there are strikes of the workers at the state broadcaster.