Belarus Protests: the Power of the Smartphone, the Importance of NEXTA, and the Visual Imagery of Protest

Isaac Castella McDonald 29 September 2020
Photo Credit: Pixabay

This week I managed to get in touch with a resident of Belarus’ capital, Minsk, and talk to him about how the people of Belarus are feeling, thinking and acting in the protests against Lukashenko’s now completely brutalised dictatorship. On Zoom he looks nervous, understandably, but thanks me for my “interest in what’s going on in Belarus” and is impatient for the first question.

To understand why the protests broke out now, after 20 years of grudging acceptance from the Belarussian people, he says we cannot underestimate the impact that the blatant and widespread police brutality against the protests (following Lukashenko’s rigged re-election on the 9th of August) had on the people.

“The key moment against him was three days after the election when 10,000 people were beaten and some died at the hands of the police. People have been against him for 20 years, but now it is the moment of deepest fear and hate against him.”

When I asked him about the most recent events of the protest, which have involved hundreds of thousands taking to the streets in the face of police brutality, he said:

“Last Sunday we had more than 100,000 people in Minsk, about 700 people were captured. Police tried to divide this protest, with roadblocks near the centre, into smaller, more targetable groups. But people find ways to be united.”

One of the ways in which the protest has united is behind the red and white flag of Belarus, used from 1991 to 1995 in their stint of independence between the collapse of the Soviet union and the rise of Lukashenko. This flag has become a symbol around which pro-democratic groups have rallied, and is part of a trend towards a defiant celebration of traditional Belarussian culture, independent of Russia and independent of the West. For our interviewee it is a powerful symbol of a free Belarus.

“We don’t want to be associated with the Soviet period, and so naturally we will associate with ourselves as a nation. People don’t want to be associated with anything to do with Lukashenko, and as an opposite, we associate as a nation.”

“We have now a culture where people living in blocked housing come together in the evenings. They come together, maybe 100 people, and sing songs about freedom.”

Videos of this are shared on NEXTA, a channel on an app called Telegram, literally meaning ‘someone’ in Belarussian, which is used by the exiled leaders of the opposition to communicate with some three million members, including our interviewee. “It looks like a movement”, he says, “80% of people agree with [the anti-governmental media posted on] NEXTA, and 20% still listen to the news.”

The photography and media being shared on NEXTA is strong evidence for the democratic power which the photographic and social aspects of smartphone culture can enable. Increasingly, the footage taken by protestors has an empowering and galvanising role. The community on NEXTA is one which has this at its core: personal testament against the state media’s sanitised and censored version of events. “I guess it is the philosophy of the channel that each person can provide news from his local place for the whole country, like they’re ‘someone’.” says our interviewee; in the struggle for Belarussian identity and individuality, smartphones are key tools that enable personhood.

Another powerful example of this power is the Black Lives Matter protests following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Sparked by footage taken on a smartphone, it’s as hard to imagine the same volume of outrage being produced by a written report, as it is to erase the memory of the video that started it all.

It is immensely encouraging to see the power invested in people by the smartphone. The footage of what’s going on in the streets of Minsk is protest photography at its finest – encouraging in the face of being disheartened, enlightening in the face of propaganda, and useful at the level of the logistics of protest on the very evening it’s captured.

The smartphone and social media has allowed protest photography to take on a more significant role than it once had. It’s still to do with documentation, but in a more immediately demanding and activating way. Social media and photography work in tandem to make individuals powerful. Video capture technology has democratised the collection of evidence – we’ve come a long way from Christina Rose’s stills of the Suffragettes in Hyde park.

The danger NEXTA poses to it is not lost on Lukashenko’s regime. More and more people are having their phones confiscated. A population without smartphones is now like one without a voice. Our source gave one example of this, a story shared to NEXTA this very morning:

“Today I read the news in NEXTA. On Saturday one woman was captured, police came to her and said please open your smartphone and give me your code. And what she did, she took her smartphone and she smashed it on the floor..”

“The next day she took her broken smartphone and took it to a repair centre, and explained what had happened. The guy repaired it with no charge; people provide solidarity.”

Think about the smartphone, with its power to record and connect, as a tool against tyranny. For students at Cambridge it is a tool, but in this context of protest, with the specific way it is fundamental to organisation for freedom and to subverting tyranny, it becomes heroic, iconic, like a 21st century sword. The image of the woman smashing her phone, and the images contained, in front of the police is one which has to show us the power of this sword. Something about the sacrifice of this act is incredibly poignant.

As the interview draws to a close, our source asks me to write one thing at the end of the article:

“Tell them about the level of solidarity that’s here, where people try to help each other, to be part of this struggling.”

Social media and video capture technology are part of the reason there is this incredible solidarity. Photography has never been more important in Belarus, and has never been as political. The power every smartphone owner has there is nothing less than access to a voice and an audience. And those two components are the framework for solidarity.