WARSAW, POLAND - Five years ago, a Belarusian teenager studying film in Poland set up a YouTube channel to show videos that he made and poke fun at his country's longtime leader, Alexander Lukashenko.
After tangling with YouTube copyright laws, the student, Stsyapan Putsila, shifted his Nexta channel and his tactics in 2018 to Telegram, the messaging app. Its encryption technologies have made it wildly popular in Russia, Iran and other countries whose governments have suppressed independent media and communications.
Fast forward two years, and Putsila's Nexta – taken from the Belarusian word for "someone" and pronounced "nekhta" -- has grown in popularity, first and foremost among Belarusians seeking uncensored information in a country whose state-run media usually serve only as a mouthpiece for the government.
A mix of user-submitted photos and videos, forwarded news items, biting opinion, and instructions for street protesters, the channel's Telegram subscribers now total more than 2 million, making it one of the biggest information sources for Belarusians.
And with protests against Lukashenko showing no sign of relenting a month after a deeply disputed election in which he claimed to have won a sixth term, Nexta is at the vanguard – both in documenting the demonstrations and in encouraging them.
'A bit like revolutionaries'
"Even before the start of the Belarusian revolution, we were a nontraditional media [outlet]," Putsila, 22, said in a telephone interview with RFE/RL's Russian Service Thursday. "We did not have a centralized website on the internet -- we are a modern information channel, mainly for young people."
Since the protests began, "we have changed a little and become a bit like revolutionaries, because people want that from us," he said.
"We are asked to publish plans describing what to do, because there are simply no clear leaders in Belarus, especially ones with such an audience," Putsila said. "If there had been it is clear that they would have been immediately detained. Now we not only inform, but to some extent also coordinate people."
With a team of six working out of a community center Warsaw, Putsila, who also uses the pseudonym Stepan Svetlov, pushes out dozens of items on the Telegram channel.
On Monday, one day after tens of thousands of Belarusians surged into Minsk's streets for the 29th day of protests, Nexta published -- in Russian, which is spoken by nearly everyone in Belarus -- a statement of support from European Union leaders and news items about the disappearance of one of the country's leading opposition figures.
Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya spoke via videolink to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) Tuesday.
Mixed in were videos of the Sunday protest in Minsk, whose numbers Belarusian authorities said totaled just 30,000 -- an estimate that Nexta and Belarusian opposition groups said was laughably low -- as well as an aerial photo with a diagram showing which streets protesters could use to get around riot police blocking a key boulevard.
"We do not force anyone to protest," Putsila said. "We tell people that they can go out, defend their rights. Belarusians come out on their own."
A native of Minsk, Putsila went to the Polish city of Katowice to study film, and then moved to Warsaw, the Polish capital, after graduating.
He has not been in his homeland since 2018, when Belarusian authorities opened a criminal investigation accusing him of "insulting the president" on YouTube. YouTube eventually pulled down Putsila's channel after Belarusian authorities complained of copyright violations, prompting the move to Telegram.
"We've received dozens of threats against us; we've even received threats that our office would be blown up," he said. His parents and his younger brother have fled to Poland, fearing for their safety.
News reports say Polish police now guard the building where he has his offices; Putsila would not comment.
In 2019, Nexta began publishing classified and confidential documents that purported to come from within Belarus; the channel gained new popularity after revealing that a traffic police officer whom authorities said had committed suicide was in fact the victim of a killing.
"People have always been unhappy, especially in recent years, when they really became tired of him," Putsila said of Lukashenko, who came to power in 1994 and has extended his rule though elections and other votes that international observers have called undemocratic.
After the August 9 election, which opponents say was falsified to give Lukashenko more than 80% of the vote, "people managed to unite, and now they feel they are the masters of their own land," Putsila said.
"Nevertheless, there are also the 'enforcers' -- this is how we call police and security officials, who are the foundation of Lukashenko's regime. However, he no longer has support among many officials; they don't support him, but only themselves," he said.
Putsila said that Belarusians had genuine hopes in Lukashenko, but that his actions over 26 years in office have worn on them. And that the official election result and the harsh police crackdown -- the violent arrest of hundreds of people and evidence that some have been tortured -- was the last straw.
"Belarusians have set a great example for the rest of the world. During the protests, people even were taking off their shoes when they climbed onto benches, they brought each other water, food, flowers. This shows a high level of self-organization," he said.
"Lukashenko tells Belarusians that the state has raised them and made people out of them, and they are ungrateful," he said. "However, it is the people themselves who are teaching children in schools, who are creating jobs, and the state, as represented by Lukashenko, does not respect these people.
Written by RFE/RL senior correspondent Mike Eckel based on reporting by Daria Yurieva, a contributor to RFE/RL's Russian Service.