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Belarusian authorities confront YouTube vloggers

On 12 March 2018, the Pinsk court equated live streams on Facebook and YouTube to foreign media. The unprecedented court decision marks the latest step in the Belarusian authorities’ crackdown against popular YouTubers. Prior to this, Belarus’s Investigative Committee...

Source: reporter.rit.edu (Illustration by Stephanie Chan)

On 12 March 2018, the Pinsk court equated live streams on Facebook and YouTube to foreign media. The unprecedented court decision marks the latest step in the Belarusian authorities’ crackdown against popular YouTubers. Prior to this, Belarus’s Investigative Committee pressured two well-known vloggers with criminal charges for insulting the president of Belarus.

The Belarusian authorities’ nervous reaction to popular YouTubers demonstrates the ineffectiveness of the state’s ideological efforts. The giant Belarusian state media machine has failed in both Minsk and the regions by promoting outdated propaganda narratives. Belarusians of all ages turn to the internet in search of objective information and discussion. Therefore, instead of instilling fear and intimidation, the persecution of Belarusian vloggers brings them additional clicks and subscriptions.

Minsk’s YouTube celebrities

The recently pressured vloggers share an antipathy for the current authoritarian system in Belarus. Over the last two years, they have produced politically-charged content which captured the attention of millions of Belarusian viewers.

Sciapan Sviatlou, a 19-year old student from Minsk, recently became the biggest Belarusian star of YouTube. Sviatlou’s YouTube channel, NEXTA, excels in producing original videos about Belarusian events. The channel features regular newscasts, entertainment videos, and music covers. “What news” – NEXTA’s weekly news digest – focuses on Belarus’s politics and social life. “What news” skilfully combines serious analysis with humorous commentary. Alexander Lukashenka remains the top target of the channel’s sophisticated satire.

The NEXTA channel boasts staggering popularity in Belarus: each video receives on average between 200,000 and 400,000 views. In the two years since its registration on YouTube, NEXTA has outperformed Belarusian state television. In particular, NEXTA possesses more subscribers on YouTube (130,078) than either the top Belarusian state television channel ONT TV (100,352) or the Polish-funded multimillion-euro television channel aimed at Belarus, Belsat TV (57,598).

Pavel Spiryn, a 33-year old lawyer from Minsk, uploaded his one-hour movie about Lukashenka in December 2017. Spiryn chose to name the movie “Step-father”, highlighting the contrast with Lukashenka’s official nickname “Batska” (“father” in Belarusian). According to Spiryn, Lukashenka acts as an evil “step-father” towards the Belarusian people and holds them hostages to his authoritarian rule. Spiryn harshly criticizes Lukashenka’s policies and slams incompetent Belarusian officials. So far, “Step-father” has received approximately 600,000 views on YouTube.

Powerful voices in the Belarusian regions

Several influential YouTubers have appeared in the Belarusian regions. In many ways, the scandalous Presidential Decree No. 3 on “preventing social dependency” (also known as the “social parasites” tax) triggered their media activities. The discriminatory character of the infamous Decree No. 3 rapidly turned ordinary people into political activists.

Maksim Philipovich, a 34-year old driver from Homiel, initially set up his YouTube channel “No Guarantees” to blog about online purchases from China. Yet, the vlogger got actively involved in protests against the social parasite tax. Philipovich filmed mass rallies across Belarusian cities and put the videos on his channel. “No Guarantees” subsequently featured numerous trials of political activists from the Homiel region. So far, the channel has accumulated more than 8 million views.

Siarhei Piatrukhin, a 48-year old actor from Brest, earned his popularity by following the footsteps of Alexei Navalny. Piatrukhin’s channel, “People’s Reporter”, features videos related to controversial issues affecting the Brest region. Notably, Piatrukhin publicly investigated corruption schemes used by Brest’s top officials and filmed his personal experiences dealing with rude police officers. Moreover, he raised the alarm about the construction of a potentially dangerous accumulator plant near Brest. Dramatic content coupled with bold headlines have brought at least three million views for “People’s Reporter”.

The popularity of these regional vloggers largely stems from their focus on local issues. In fact, Piatrukhin and Philipovich act as investigative journalists. Unlike Belarusian state television, the vloggers honestly report about the problems of their regions.

Belarusian authorities initiate a crack-down

Philipovich was the first target of the Belarusian justice system. In July 2017, the Homiel court opened a criminal case against him on charges of “replacing the state media with his own video production.” The prosecution maintained that Philipovich had to officially register his YouTube channel as foreign media. A team of human rights lawyers managed to prove the absurdity of charges against the vlogger, and the Homiel court eventually ruled that video hosting platforms did not count as foreign media in Belarus.

Nevertheless, on 13 March 2018, the Pinsk court fined Piatrukhin and his colleague Alexander Kabanau for live-streaming on Facebook and YouTube during their meeting with the managers of the accumulator plant’s managers. Hence the court in Pinsk de-facto recognized Facebook and YouTube as foreign media in Belarus.

Sviatlou has recently attracted the attention of Belarus’s Investigative Committee. On 22 February, unknown representatives of the Investigative Committee confiscated a camera and notebook from Sviatlou’s parents’ flat. They cited as legal grounds for the confiscation a written complaint by an unknown citizen, which stated that one of Sviatlou’s videos insulted the president (punishable under Article 368 of the Criminal Code).

On 5 March, Spiryn visited one of the police departments in Minsk to testify about the production of “Step-father”. The officers conducted a phonoscope examination of Spiryn’s voice. Spiryn does not exclude the opening of a criminal case against him on charges of insulting the president.

A threat to internet freedom in Belarus?

The Pinsk court’s absurd decision presumes that each personal video uploaded by Belarusian citizens to social media platforms classifies as foreign media. Any Belarusian YouTuber could find themselves fined for “illegal media production and distribution.” So far, the Pinsk court’s decision has not sparkled mass outrage among Belarusians. Hence its implications remain unknown: either the Belarusian justice system will neglect the premature decision of an overzealous judge, or it will use it as a precedent to fight politically-charged vloggers.

Nevertheless, the persecution of popular YouTubers has not benefited the Belarusian authorities thus far. On the contrary, Belarusian vloggers have received additional popularity at home and abroad. Taking into account the fact that criminal proceedings against Sviatlou and Spiryn have not officially resumed, the Belarusian authorities still weigh up whether to persecute vloggers or to set them aside.

In conclusion, the Belarusian authorities still focus on the little things while ignoring serious issues. The true danger for Belarusian statehood lies in aggressive messages undermining its sovereignty by Russian media outlets. Instead of persecuting vloggers, the Belarusian authorities should limit anti-Belarusian propaganda conducted by Russian media.

Olga Hryniuk
Olga Hryniuk
Olga Hryniuk holds degrees from Coventry University and the European Humanities University. She is based in Minsk, Belarus.
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