While most college students use their stipends to cover rent or booze, Stepan Putilo spends his on managing the most popular dissident media outlet in Belarus. And in the past month, as thousands of Belarusians have taken to the streets to demand the ouster of incumbent Alexander Lukashenko, Putilo’s self-professed “hobby” has taken on even larger scale. 

On August 8, 2020, Putilo’s Telegram channel had nearly 341,000 subscribers. Three days later, that number had tripled to 1.2 million. Today, NEXTA_live has over 2 million subscribers, the equivalent of one-fifth of the entire population of Belarus. NEXTA is now the fifteenth most-popular Telegram account in the world, behind Telegram’s official news outlet, a Covid-19 channel run by the Indian government, and a handful of Bollywood accounts.

Stepan Putilo/Facebook

The channel’s dramatic rise was precipitated by Belarus’ presidential election, which saw the man often referred to as “Europe’s last dictator,” receive 80% of what observers say was a rigged vote. As mostly peaceful demonstrations broke out in response, Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus for 26 years, ordered a violent crackdown, leading to at least two deaths and thousands of arrests. Internet access was shut down nationwide in “a targeted government action,” according to local human rights NGOs.

During this two-day period, outside experts confirmed that connectivity in Belarus was reduced to 20% of normal levels, while independent media outlets, such as Nasha Niva, MediaZona, Afn.by, and Tut.by, and social media networks — excluding Telegram — were completely cut off. (Lukashenko alleged that the internet blockages were not his doing, but rather the result of several foreign “denial of service” attacks.) NEXTA was one of the only news sources sharing live footage from Belarus that remained accessible.

Putilo’s first brush with Belarusian security services took place in 2015, when he was just 17. That year, he started making music videos satirizing his country’s government for his YouTube channel NEXTA (pronounced NEKH-ta, which means “someone” in Belarusian). His breakout hit was a parody of the Russian rock song called “No Exit,” which he adapted to critique Lukashenko’s rule. In his version, the song includes the lyrics, “Twenty years have passed, but it’s still the same portrait on the wall … . After it attracted the attention of the Russian-language YouTube community, state security officers visited Putilo’s school to find out who had been causing all the trouble.

Stepan, whose father is a journalist and sports commentator at Belsat, a Belarusian-language news channel in Poland, currently studies film and video production at the Silesian University of Technology, in Poland. He hasn’t been to Belarus since 2018, when authorities attempted to open a criminal case against him for insulting the president on social media. That same year, he launched NEXTA’s Telegram channel.

It was a police department leak that turned NEXTA from a niche channel into a local phenomenon. Thanks to an insider tip, Putilo was the first to break the story of the mysterious death of a police officer in the eastern Belarusian city of Mogilev. The article ran on May 16, 2019, and within a day, NEXTA’s readership nearly doubled to 70,000. A number of subscribers created Telegram accounts specifically to read NEXTA and supply it with tips. “Every day I receive messages from dozens of people in different spheres and professions — from border control officers to salespeople,” Putilo told Tut.by, an independent Belarusian publication.

In 2020, he decided to convert NEXTA into a newsroom. Based in Warsaw, it is a decentralized channel that operates only on YouTube, Telegram, Twitter, and Instagram, without a website. Putilo is in charge of developing content for YouTube (his channel now has more than 490,000 subscribers), while editor-in-chief Roman Protasevich curates its Telegram presence. Because none of the team’s four editors is based in Belarus, they are able to publish content critical of the regime without being subject to investigation.

Additionally, NEXTA sources are allowed to remain anonymous unless sharing their identity is essential to verifying a story. “If I am, God forbid, abducted by special forces, and they torture me, I won’t be able to give anyone up, because I don’t have their personal information,” Putilo explained in an interview. According to Protasevich, there are between four and six criminal cases currently open against Putilo and himself in Belarus, adding up to a total of 25 years in possible jail time. Amid ongoing protests and patchy connectivity, NEXTA has become one of the most influential sources of breaking political news in Belarus. Sofya Orlosky, senior program manager for Eurasia at Freedom House, said that, while internet accessibility in Belarus often flags during protests, it’s usually hard to tell if that’s because of targeted government actions or overloaded cell towers. But as access declined across the country this month, it seemed clear that the government had played a role.

Sergei Gapon/AFP via Getty Images

Felicia Anthonio, campaigner and lead at Access Now’s #KeepItOn campaign, told Rest of World in an email that Belarusian authorities have never before used a nationwide internet blackout to silence opposition. There were early warnings that it could happen: in June and July of 2020, local #KeepItOn coalition partners noted that programs used to authenticate and encrypt data were temporarily made unusable. On June 19, the last day in which opposition candidates could gather signatures for the upcoming presidential election, Minsk residents reported that mobile internet was being jammed downtown.

Following the network shutdowns, Belarusians and foreign observers flocked to Telegram to track developments in the capital. At that point, “I think many newsrooms realized that they’d need to create a Telegram account because it couldn’t be blocked,” Olga Hvoin, communications manager at the Belarusian Association of Journalists said in a phone interview. “When the internet was blocked, along with all the websites, this was the only [way] to reach an audience.” Within these channels, NEXTA emerged as the epicenter of protest coordination. It announced the real-time locations of government troops and told citizens where to hide. It asked residents to unlock their home Wi-Fi for protesters, published details about planned rallies, shared videos of police officers burning their uniforms, and spread contacts of lawyers and human rights defenders. “We realized that, if not us, then no one” would do this, Protasevich reflected.

While NEXTA wasn’t the only outlet to expand its Telegram audience over the week of August 9, it is light-years ahead of runner-up accounts like Belarus of the Brain (470,000+) and Tut.by (349,000+) in terms of reach. Protasevich told Meduza that the channel received around 1,000 messages and tips per day before the election and the Covid-19 pandemic. Three days after, they estimated 180–250 messages per minute. A likely contributing factor is that, even before the election, NEXTA flaunted its anti-Lukashenko views. “The fact that NEXTA was so openly taking an active citizenship position is what drew people to it,” said Orlosky. “They weren’t shy of criticizing the regime.”

With the opposition showing few signs of backing down, the government is pushing back. At least 72 journalists have been arrested since protests began, and more than 20 have been subject to some form of physical violence. Moreover, officials recently proposed amendments to a mass media law that would restrict anonymous communications — such as those that take place on Telegram. And while these outlets have more leeway in what they can publish than traditional newspapers, experts suspect it is only a matter of time before Belarusian authorities devise ways to silence them. But for now, NEXTA remains one step ahead. As Putilo once observed, the channel actually gets more popular with each unsuccessful attempt to shut it down.