Katya Kazbek is a Russian writer and translator based in NYC. She is the editor-in-chief of Supamodu.com. Follow her on Twitter @kazbek
English-language media coverage of the upheaval in Belarus is dominated by Western-funded media and regime-change NGOs. Sadly, most people following it are unaware of the hidden agendas and blindly accept the managed narrative.
Major social networks and content-sharing websites–Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube–have all recently introduced measures to label particular media outlets because of the connections these have to governments. Or perhaps we should say governments the US doesn’t like.
The labeling system is not exactly applied equally. Facebook and Twitter refuse to acknowledge any government connection when it comes to the West, concentrating on Chinese and Russian state-affiliated media. Meanwhile, YouTube uses different wording for public broadcasters such as Britain’s BBC and Russia’s VGTRK, making the system rather unequal.
This issue becomes even more pressing in the case of media covering the events unfolding in Belarus. Precise information on worker strikes, police brutality, and media crackdowns is necessary for anyone supporting the people of the country in their hope for fair treatment and decent lives. However, Western desire to try to instigate a color revolution, and the private interests of some of the opposition’s key players, make it nearly impossible not to be drawn into a particular agenda. How can one support the people of Belarus without tacitly supporting nationalist and neoliberal agendas?
Uncritical support for the protest movement coming from a layperson is understandable: it’s exciting, hope-inspiring, and women in dresses carrying bunches of fresh flowers make for beautiful images. Law enforcement, meanwhile, like anywhere else, appears to be no friend of the people, but instead cruel and arrogant. The opposition, already suspect for their reform plan – heavy on privatization and Westernization – and for actions used to hijack the worker’s strike movement to its own advantage, is universally lauded. Yet one has to look really hard to find news coverage that doesn’t serve as a mouthpiece for good old regime change instead of regular Belarusians.
But nowhere near the right amount of scrutiny is applied to weed out foreign interference as well as the political interests that media outlets covering Belarus protests espouse. However, those who genuinely believe in a more just world deserve to have comprehensive, unbiased information on the press interests involved. Here’s an attempt to offer insight into the leading players.
Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty is, perhaps, the most noticeable media outlet in the present situation: their recognizable logo with the torch is in most protest photos being shared online. Recently, they even returned to the radio waves in a nostalgia-tinged way to avoid censorship with internet access being switched off across Belarus. In fact, it must be a sentimental time for RFE/RL: as if they’d returned to their roots, when Soviet-bashing was in its salad days, as nazi collaborators and Belarus-born anti-bolsheviks were helping the fledgling CIA radio station take its baby steps.
Run by the US government – along with its newer sibling ‘Currenttime’ – and obligated to support its positions and objectives in times of crisis, RFE/RL has been eager to aggravate the conflict’s coverage in any way possible. For instance, this includes falsely presenting supposed Russian plans for military intervention—when, in fact, the promise Vladimir Putin made to his counterpart in Minsk, Alexander Lukashenko, was that Moscow would help Belarus out in case of “foreign military intervention.”
The RFE/RL party line is fiercely pushed by Franak Viačorka, a foreign grant recipient, who has been monopolizing the Twitter space on Belarus. While not currently employed by RFE/RL full-time, he used to work for them and is now at the NATO and US/UK arms industry-funded Atlantic Council.
Voice of America, another US Agency for Global Media project, as well as the German government-funded Deutsche Welle and British-bankrolled BBC, have all been covering the protests and giving ample room to the leaders of the opposition to speak out. The BBC has also been covering crackdowns on protesters and the press by law enforcement, and its own crew had been involved in a stand-off with the police.
However, because the protests in Belarus, much like in Ukraine half a decade ago, have become a magnet for all sorts of nationalist players, this has led the British state broadcaster to engage in quite a bit of whitewashing, For instance, when reporting about the detention of Witold Dobrowolski, a notorious far-right activist from Poland, BBC presented him as a “photojournalist”–which he is, of course, but one with a very particular agenda.
Poland, meanwhile, has skin in the game as well: an opposition satellite channel watched in Belarus, Belsat TV, is funded by Poland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, with some cash injections from the UK and US governments also recorded. They are also reliably partnered with RFE/RL. Meanwhile, Euroradio has been sharing funding from Poland and the US. Like the other players, both are known for similar engagements during the Kiev Maidan.
Meanwhile, the National Endowment for Democracy, the regime-change arm of the US government, has also plowed cash into the Belarusian opposition movement and media, both in 2019 and earlier.
The borders between Belarusian media and the opposition have notably become blurred. For instance, TUT.BY has been Belarus’s leading opposition media for a while now. Its founder, Yury Zisser, died earlier this year. Like many others in the company, and the opposition in general, he was part of Belarus’s growing IT community. His wife Yuliya Chernavskaya, a prominent public intellectual and proponent of Belarusian “cultural nationalism,” has been placed on the coordination council of the opposition, initiated by Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the presidential candidate now in exile in Lithuania.
Among other members are Tatiana Marinich of BelBiz and Ales Bialiatski of Vesna, both recipients of hefty sums from the US government and themselves significant contributors to the opposition’s work throughout the years–as well as other IT folk (Another opposition leader Valery Tsepkalo, the founder of Belarus Hi-Tech Park, is a Peter Thiel-kind of a figure with a penchant for writing sci-fi.)
The possibility of the sort of mass privatization Belarus avoided in the 1990s has, of course, brought in the free market hawks at the Financial Times: as they anticipate an ‘exciting’ capitalist reimagining of the state. The FT paints an appealing picture for the middle class but only has scorn for workers in the country’s agricultural sector.
In addition to more conventional media, Telegram channels have become the go-to source of information. Of them, NEXTA has become the most prominent: it now boasts over two million subscribers. And yet, despite the presentation of this information source as a grassroots initiative, it is connected to foreign governments. The channel’s founder, who named it after his own online nickname Nexta (Somebody), is Stepan Chepushilo/Putilo/Svetlov, who had previously worked for Belsat (where his father, Alexander Chepushilo, is a sports commentator) and RFE/RL, and currently lives in Warsaw. NEXTA’s editor-in-chief, Roman Protasevich has a similar biography: he had worked for RFE/RL and Euroradio, and also currently resides in the Polish capital.
NEXTA has been the protest movement’s primary source for videos of protests, police violence, as well as the emotive clips in which (former) law enforcement agents dispose of their uniforms while claiming to join protesters (the veracity of these clips is contested by some). The news of the arrival of Wagner Group mercenaries in Minsk, alleging a Russian connection, came from NEXTA, too.
Meanwhile, press coverage from Belarus’s most prominent neighbor, Russia, has been leaving many in the West puzzled, as both government-affiliated media and foreign-funded outlets, such as Riga-based Meduza, have been sympathetic to the opposition, to varying degrees. Amidst much speculation, it remains to be seen whether the strong bond between the two countries, which some of the opposition seem eager to dismantle, will continue, evolve or deteriorate.
Another factor perhaps exercising minds in Russian media is the damage wrought by previous color revolutions and seismic systemic changes, including in Russia itself. These events have a history of plunging countries into poverty and disarray. Indeed, even today in Russia, the economic reforms of the 90s are fundamental to all the ensuing politics, and to the lack of a coherent left-wing opposition.
For now, the most essential thing for a casual observer is to clearly understand the underlying interests that drive media coverage. Before you make up your mind, you have to open it.