Arrests and charges: Why Lukashenka sees bloggers as real threat to his presidency

Syarhei Tsikhanouski. Photo: Belsat

Six popular bloggers who caught the eye of the regime during the 2020 election have been detained and charges in Belarus. Primarily this relates to their critical political agenda, attempts to provide alternative information and unite people. Awakening of popular blogs is associated with activation and politicisation of civil society, which is definitely undesirable for the authoritarian authorities.

Developing political activism online

The regime’s goal since 1994 was to depoliticise civil society. And indeed, Alyaksandr Lukashenka‘s being in power for the last 26 years has almost shut the nation out from hope for changes in the country.

His ‘traditional’ opponents continue experiencing oppression in forms of detentions, threats, and blocking of their access to ordinary Belarusians. State-owned media discredit those who usually challenge the incumbent during electoral campaigns.

Independent media are deprived of accreditation, while journalists working for unregistered media are charged for illegal content production. This, together with internet diffusion, has triggered a rise of political activism online.

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Many bloggers discuss political issues and encourage people to participate in campaigns, charity projects, etc. Their audience has been growing in the last few years due to the their immediately covering topical events as well as voicing critical opinions. Social media that allow for better interaction between blog owners and their audience did impact the online activists’ popularity.

Influence on anti-Lukashenka voters

Syarhei Pyatrukhin and Alyaksandr Kabanau took a stand in a protest against the construction of the environmentally unfriendly battery plant in Brest. It has unsurprisingly led to authorities’ reaction as the bloggers dared to express against the political course. The two bloggers were repeatedly detained, including the recent arrest in June 2020. Before that, Kabanau participated in the election campaign of potential presidential candidate Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya.

Her husband Syarhei Tsikhanouski revealed his plans to run for presidency in May, but later he was arrested over his organising meetings with voters. Six months before, Tsikhanouski was detained for mobilising protests against Belarus-Russia ‘deepening integration’ in Minsk. He managed to gain extensive support and attract a significant number of viewers on his YouTube channel Strana Dlia Zhizni (A Country for Living). He is currently facing two criminal charges which may carry punishment of up to three years in jail.

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When hundreds of Belarusians lined up for expressing discontent with authorities in Minsk on June 19, the internet connection in the downtown was blocked. Then blogger and freelance journalist Ihar Losik was publishing videos of protests, which resulted in his being detained and locked up on June, 25.

Due to their effort to teach out to Belarusians, the bloggers have established alternative political agenda and politicised civil society. Against the background of authorities’ failure to bring the pandemic and the stagnating economy under control, these social media activists provoked Belarusians’ to express their opinion on the streets.

Bloggers as new target

Seeing the capacity of political bloggers both in raising awareness about injustice in Belarus and being able to mobilise people, the regime drew a bead on them. Half a dozen bloggers were accused of organising unsanctioned assemblies even though some of them were not participants, they just covered the events. With limited resources of the authorities to control foreign-owned social media such as YouTube, Facebook, and Telegram, raising popularity of political blogs scared Lukashenka.

In the report Mass Media in Belarus 2020, Telegram is named ‘platform of the year’. Social networks and independent media are really a thorn in the flesh of the regime. In late June, Interior Minister Yury Karayeu claimed that protests in Belarus were coordinated through Telegram channels and… livestreams of Radio Free Europe.

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Security of the messenger and its anonymous chat function provided bloggers with the opportunity to get information from the individuals who need additional security measures. For example, blogger NEXTA published a detailed video tour around Lukashenka’s new luxury plane worth over $60 mln. Such leaks in the middle of the election campaign are hardly pleasing the authorities.

In 2020, now it can be seen that the Internet and social media challenge the authorities’ status quo more than political or party activists. Arrests and detentions of political bloggers are expectable since the regime does not allow for development of any oppositional activity on a larger scale. At the same time, the harshness of methods employed against the bloggers is indicative of the regime’s incapability to fully restrict the freedom of speech on social media. The tricky part of controlling blogs is that they continuously increase their reach; new blogs appear. Limited resources and decentralisation of political blogs make these individuals stay afloat (with such exceptions of the most popular bloggers).

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Alesia Rudnik,