This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.
For almost a decade, Syarhey Kozlovich had been employed by the sprawling apparatus of Belarusian state TV. From his debut as a lowly member of the technical team in 2011, he worked his way up to becoming a presenter on Belarus-1, the country’s main television channel.
The day after the fraud-marred August 9 election that extended the 26-year rule of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, however, Kozlovich decided he’d had enough. Thousands of people, among them his friends, had taken to the streets of Minsk to protest the results, only to be met with a violent police crackdown.
In an Instagram post, Kozlovich announced he was quitting. “This was a childhood dream that I devoted 10 years to,” he wrote on August 11. “But yesterday I sat in the studio for the final time.”
Less than two weeks later, Kozlovich’s position had been filled, as had the jobs of numerous other state journalists across Belarus who had quit or been fired for supporting the opposition movement.
The jobs weren’t filled by fellow Belarusians, though, but by state TV journalists from Russia, which has backed Lukashenka and was now apparently assisting his efforts to retain power.
Belarus’s government channels are used to lauding the policies and pronouncements of Lukashenka, the former collective-farm boss who has ruled the small post-Soviet state since 1994. State news agencies have for years been issuing press releases expressing similar sentiments.
Lukashenka’s government initially denied the reports that Russian journalists had arrived to guide coverage, but the atmosphere on state media soon changed.
With opposition protests convulsing the country almost daily, gone were the staid updates about harvest yields or the latest coronavirus figures. Slick propaganda videos slamming protesters as agents of the West began appearing.
“Paid-off scum who refer to themselves as the people are ready for $20 to sell their own mothers,” read the text in one such clip posted by the state news agency BelTA, superimposed over images of angry mobs wreaking havoc. “Now they want to return to our streets, to dismantle everything we’ve spent so many years building.”
The arrival of journalists from Russia isn’t the same thing as Moscow’s dispatch of “little green men” who mysteriously appeared in Crimea prior to Russia’s annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula in 2014, and later turned out to be Russian troops in disguise.
But, critics say, they, and the media messaging they’re bringing, are a clear indication of how Moscow hopes to strengthen Lukashenka’s position.
“Two planes filled with Russian journalists arrived to fill our places in exchange for high salaries,” Alyona Martinovskaya, a journalist at Belarus-3, told the Tut.by news agency on August 19.
The revelation resounded with observers both in Belarus and abroad amid widespread questions about the Kremlin’s reaction to Belarus’s unrest. It’s also stoked speculation over what other moves Russia might take to shore up Lukashenka’s government or even help stamp out the protest movement.
In an interview with RFE/RL, Kozlovich said state TV’s coverage of the protests were for him the “final straw.” “I had a morning shift live on air, where we were supposed to discuss events that had happened the previous night,” he said. “I understood that this information, even if not utterly fabricated, was nonetheless so biased that it presented a completely different picture of events.”
It wasn’t just state TV that was mobilizing in the effort to rally support for Lukashenka.
On the Telegram messenger app, the channel of Lukashenka’s press pool launched a series of “stickers”– simple images that users can attach to a message–that profess support for Lukashenka’s campaign to crush the opposition or even defend harsh police tactics.
The information offensive appeared to coincide with measures to restrict the spread of competing facts.
Prior to August 9 election, at least 100 foreign journalists were denied accreditation to enter the country and cover events, according to the country’s journalism association. Several foreign reporters who did enter have been beaten and deported from the country, often slapped with a five-year entry ban.
On August 17, Komsomolskaya pravda, a popular Moscow-based tabloid that also publishes a Belarus edition, planned to place on its cover a photograph of the largest opposition protest in the country’s history, when an estimated 200,000 gathered the previous evening.
But the printing house announced that its printing press broke, and the edition never came out. A few days later, according to multiple reports, the government began blocking several dozen opposition-friendly websites.
On August 21, Lukashenka finally confirmed that he had “asked the Russians” to send “two or three teams” of Russian journalists to work in the state media holding company that includes Kozlovich’s Belarus-1 channel.
In an appearance before factory workers in the town of Dzyarzhynsk, Lukashenka said the imported journalists’ job was to replace those employees who had “jumped onto the streets and begun protesting.”
One of the teams would join his presidential press pool, he said, adding, “Let our youth see how they work.”