Disinformation

Infodemic: Embattled Lukashenko’s Covid-19 U-turn; protests in Jordan

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As protests in Belarus grow, there are plenty of indicators that the nation’s dictator, President Alexander Lukashenko, is becoming desperate. He has: 

  • Tried to hold counter-rallies in support of his government
  • Detained and then released hundreds of demonstrators
  • And even asked Russia’s President Vladimir Putin — a man Lukashenko loves to hate — for help 

But here’s a sign of panic that you may have missed: he has abandoned his trademark coronavirus denialism and accused the opposition of breaking social distancing rules. 

“Are they wearing masks? Are they socially distancing?” Lukashenko asked at a rally hastily organized by the government to distract attention from much larger protests against presidential election results that gave him an 80%. He also said that he had done “everything to keep people safe” from Covid-19. 

That is simply not true. Lukashenko refused to shut down the country, referring to the pandemic as a “psychosis” and an “economic and political war” against nations like Belarus.  

His sudden turnaround is not just bizarre. It is ridiculous, considering the experiences of protesters in Belarusian detention centers last week. 

Our journalists have been collecting their testimonies. Here’s what happened to 25-year-old Maxim when he was arrested:

“There were about a hundred of us. We were taken into a single room — it was about 60 square meters. There was no ceiling, just the sky above us, walls with barbed wire and a cement floor. It was cold. ‘Here is your toilet,’ they told us and put an oil barrel in the middle of the room. For all 100 of us. In the morning, they took us outside and put us on our knees. They told us to undress. And then the worst began.” 

After four hours on his knees, Maxim says that the group was taken into another, much smaller room.   

“That was the worst bit. Twenty of us could sit down, right next to each other. The rest had to stand. And we had to take turns sitting down. The toilet was a drainage pipe in the corner. It stank of urine.”

Maxim spent three days in this room. Over that time, he said, guards threw 10 loaves of bread in for prisoners to share. 

Artyom, 23, was not even at a protest when he was detained. He was rounded up near a store in Minsk and shoved into a car along with dozens of others. 

“They put us on top of each other, like in a game of Tetris,” he told us. “One man had an epileptic attack, the other man started saying that he had Covid. In response, they beat him.”

Artyom said he was taken to Okrestino detention center, where all the men from his bus were forced to run a gauntlet of special forces soldiers, who beat them with batons. 

“They took us into a courtyard that could fit 10 people. There were around 80 of us. Around 2pm the next day, they took us to the cells. Mine was a cell for five people. There were 26 of us in it … They didn’t feed us. At some point they threw us a loaf of bread but I slept through that.” 

There is plenty more to Artyom’s and Maxim’s stories. If you read Russian, here are the detailed testimonies collected by our journalists Katia Fomina and Tania Torocheshnkiova. They are accompanied by photographic evidence of the horrific beatings endured by protesters. 

For more context: as Belarus braces for the second week of protests, here’s one of our recent Infodemics, which explains why the coronavirus may just have been the straw that broke the back of the 26-year rule of Europe’s last dictator. 

And Belarus is not the only country shaken by demonstrations. Keep reading to find out about lesser-known but significant Covid-related protests in Jordan. 

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For weeks, Jordanians have been protesting against their government’s decision to shut down the national teachers’ union. The state has been lauded for its relative success in containing the coronavirus, but now stands accused of squandering that goodwill with a repressive response to teachers’ demands that promised wage increases, which have been axed in light of the economic impact of the pandemic, be honored. The crackdown has included the arrests of all 13 of the labor union’s board members. 

Lebanese Covid-19 numbers appear to be showing the effects of the Beirut explosion. Yesterday, authorities reported a record 439 infections in 24 hours and imposed a new two-week lockdown in response. The country’s weakened healthcare capacities present a further obstacle to the nation’s pandemic response. Half of Beirut’s medical facilities have been found by the World Health Organization to be non-functional, and 2,000 doctors were affected by the blast, according to the Doctors’ Syndicate.

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Hungry for more?

Here are a few highlights from Coda’s journalists: 

  • Mariam Kiparoidze looks at how QAnon’s conspiracy theories are taking root across Europe
  • Isobel Cockerell finds disturbing evidence of vaccination programs being adversely affected by Covid-19 restrictions 
  • And Mat Nashed reports on how the Egyptian government is using a vaguely defined cybercrime bill to crack down on young female TikTok influencers

And, as I have been watching hundreds of incredible photographs and videos emerging from Belarus protests, here’s one I found particularly poignant. A simple image of an empty studio of Lukashenko’s main propaganda arm: state TV.

That’s it from me. Many thanks to Dave Stelfox and Gautama Mehta for their contributions to today’s Infodemic. And as always, hit reply anytime if you have tips, questions or feedback. 

See you on Friday!

The story you just read is a small piece of a complex and an ever-changing storyline we are following as part of our coverage. These overarching storylines — whether the disinformation campaigns that are feeding the war on truth or the new technologies strengthening the growing authoritarianism, are the crises that Coda covers relentlessly and with singular focus. We work with dozens of local and international reporters, video journalists, artists and designers to bring you stories you haven’t seen elsewhere, provide you with context missing from the news cycle and illuminate the continuity between the crises we cover. Support Coda now and join the conversation with our team. No amount is too small.

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Natalia Antelava

Natalia Antelava is the Editor-in-Chief of Coda Story.

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