Belarusians are using Telegram – and their own printers – to deliver the news
The names in this story have been changed to protect our sources’ safety.
Delivering newspapers in Belarus is dangerous work.
Distributors wear hoods to hide their faces and gloves so they won’t leave fingerprints. They work late in the evening, changing their routes to avoid being noticed. Once past the front door of an apartment block, they find a quiet spot to start work. They stuff leaflets into mail boxes, or leave them in piles where residents can easily find them.
If they are seen, distributors are told to hide the newspapers in their coats or bags. If they are caught by police, they claim the leaflets were never theirs to begin with.
This is the new Belarusian samizdat: clandestine, self-made publications that seek to spread trustworthy information under a government dedicated to keeping it hidden. But unlike Soviet-era samizdat that came before it, Belarus’ new free press is a hybrid, digital-and-print operation. While its delivery is decidedly low-tech, the network of volunteers behind it uses anonymous, decentralized apps to enlarge its reach and minimize individual risk. Distributors take the materials from online publications, but then print out the leaflets at home — ready to be handed to friends, neighbors, and people who rarely use the internet.
In this world, samizdat starts life on Telegram, one of the few platforms where Belarusian oppositionists can connect and gather news. Belarusians flocked to the encrypted messaging and news-sharing app in the summer of 2020, when President Alexander Lukashenko secured a sixth term in office, despite widespread allegations of election fraud and declarations by foreign governments that his win was not legitimate. The country saw the largest protests in its history, and riot police violently subdued demonstrators who opposed the results.
Belarus has since seen a stream of politically-motivated prosecutions, a constant reminder that dissent will not be tolerated. Even the most innocuous events have led to fines or prosecution. One woman was jailed for 18 months for “insulting” photoshopped images of Lukashenko on her phone. Another was fined because her socks were reminiscent of the opposition flag. This has all amounted to a quiet, uneasy national atmosphere, in which Belarusians must constantly second-guess the authorities, and those who support the opposition are afraid to say so publicly.
While Telegram has become the go-to platform for Belarusians seeking out trustworthy news, it is not reaching everyone. Most users are in or near Minsk, the capital.
Enter ByProsvet, Belarus’ samizdat aggregator. This volunteer-driven effort has built a bridge between online and offline worlds, seeking to reach people who otherwise might not have access to reliable news and information. Members of the group live both inside and outside the country, and identify as “citizens of the Republic of Belarus who are not indifferent to the future of our country.” The “By” in their name is shorthand for Belarus, while “Prosvet” in Russian means “clearance” or “light.”
Using a Telegram bot that automatically distributes news and information to the network, ByProsvet invites users to download PDF files, print out physical copies of the newspaper, and then distribute them by hand. Activists can then use another Telegram bot to update an online map, showing readers where they can find the latest print-outs. All of the team’s printed materials include the handles of independent Belarusian news sites operating elsewhere on the internet, inviting readers to seek out more information online. While most of the work happens on a volunteer basis, ByProsvet uses a crowdfunding platform to cover larger expenses.
The leaflets include reports on government repression, often spotlighting cases in the specific areas or towns they serve, and interviews with protestors or Belarusian opposition leaders. Some also share news on broader topics such as the war in Ukraine or the migration crisis on the Belarusian-Polish border, which have been distorted by Belarusian government propaganda. Some articles are written by individual publications, while others are repackaged from other digital media outlets.
The process provides a somewhat secure separation between those writing and editing each newspaper, and those distributing and reading it. The decentralized system makes it almost impossible for security services to bring down the entire operation, or to arrest larger groups behind it. But it is not fool-proof.
People who are caught with a small quantity of newspapers usually get fined, explains Zhenya, an editor for the samizdat outlet Belarusskiy Vestnik, or “Belarusian Bulletin.”
“The people who work with us are connected to us — they are under our full care. We pay fines, and if necessary, we also pay for people to leave Belarus,” they say.
One volunteer, Arciom Fedasenka, was arrested after printing samizdat at his own private publishing house in May 2021. He was jailed for four years in a maximum-security prison for “participating in group actions in gross violation of public order.” Another, Aleh Haurylau, was arrested for printing and distributing samizdat, and is now in pre-trial detention for “insulting the president.”
Go small, or go dark: Countering the media crackdown in Belarus
“All sources of alternative opinion have been destroyed in Belarus – everything,” says Zhenya.
“Given that far from 100 percent of the population has access to the internet, people simply have no choice. They only have access to one opinion: that of our unrecognized president and his junta. We know what happens when the people have no access to alternative opinions. We’ve seen it with Russia,” they say.
Indeed, as anti-government protests grew larger and more frequent after the 2020 elections, so did state efforts to snuff out the country’s few independent media outlets. In August 2020, one of the country’s biggest outlets, Komsomolskaya Pravda in Belarus published images of demonstrators who had been badly beaten by police. Authorities quickly stripped newsstands of remaining copies of the newspaper, and Belarusian printing houses refused to publish future editions. The outlet’s news site was finally blocked in September 2021, on grounds that it “could produce threats to national security, including through the artificial irritation of tensions and conflicts in society.” Prominent news channels on Telegram have been targeted too. In October 2020, Nexta Live, which offered extensive coverage of post-election demonstrations, was declared “extremist” by a Minsk court. Today, most Belarusian opposition media are based abroad.
Sasha, a ByProsvet volunteer, explains that under Belarusian law, print magazines and newspapers with a circulation of less than 299 copies don’t need to be registered with the state.
“We decided that we could act within the law by [printing] local newspapers and leaflets,” they say.
“We provide a tool that everyone can use. By printing and distributing newspapers in their own building, a person delivers the news to an average of 72 people,” says Nikola, the co-founder and editor of samizdat publication Chestnaya Gazeta, or “honest newspaper.” Nikola estimates that about 1.7 million copies of Chestnaya Gazeta have been printed since the project launched.
Who is reading the samizdat?
“If someone is capable of critical thought, then they are absolutely in our target audience,” says Zhenya. “We want to reach out to everyone; we want to give people the opportunity to take a critical look at what is happening.”
Many of those that ByProsvet hopes to reach are elderly or may not be confident using technology in their daily lives. Samizdat publishers believe that many Belarusians are simply more likely to trust the printed word.
“For a huge segment of society, the rule that ‘if it’s in the paper, it must be true’ still applies. For that reason, just spreading information via the internet isn’t enough,” says Zhenya.
While harnessing offline publication helps activists reach digitally-isolated Belarusians, it also allows the ByProsvet team to tackle digital-only problems. Their leaflets don’t just reach Belarusians who live in a completely offline world. They also reach ordinary people who may only visit a select number of government-controlled news sites, or those who tend to only hear the opinions of friends and family that echo their own.
The decentralized nature of the project also allows distributors to make their own decisions on where and how to share information, rather than putting them at the mercy of algorithms or major platforms. Instead, they can use their local knowledge to reach out within their communities and distribute leaflets where they think people will actually read them.
Sasha believes that all of this is key to cultivating the long-term resistance that Belarusian activists hope to nurture. They see the samizdat as a way to carry the protest movement forward, even when it has left the streets.
“Now, when there are no active changes [happening in Belarusian civil society], newspapers, leaflets or stickers are motivation for people who support the opposition and a reminder that there are still others out there with the same values,” says Sasha. “They are a reminder that … Belarus’ current stagnation is not forever.”
Zhenya agrees. “[The people distributing and printing samizdat] have not given up … despite the terror unleashed by the self-proclaimed government against the people of Belarus,” she says. “They believe in victory and continue to fight.”
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