Last week, Belarusian sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya narrowly escaped the clutches of her country’s authoritarian government as it tried to forcibly remove her from the Olympics and send her back to Minsk because she criticized her coaches online. Thankfully, international officials stepped in to protect her, and Poland has offered her safe harbor and refugee status. According to Tsimanouskaya though, she didn’t realize just how much danger she was in until her face was on Belarusian state television.
"In Belarus, if they show you on TV and call you a traitor, that means you are most likely going to jail," said Alexander Opeikin, who leads the non-governmental organization that assisted Tsimanouskaya in getting to safety.
State TV is used by authoritarian governments the world over to control how their citizens perceive the world around them. But in Belarus, state TV has turned into a full-time factory of violent, dehumanizing programming used to justify the torture and human rights violations committed against those who oppose Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko.
And the biggest advertisers whose funding enables it all? Western companies like Coca-Cola, Nestle, Colgate, Pepsi, and Procter & Gamble. According to German-Swiss human rights group Libereco, who have been sounding the alarm for months, two out of three commercials on Belarusian state TV are from American and European companies. The numbers come from a study conducted by the group from July 12-18 tallying up primetime advertisements on the three state-owned TV stations: Belarus 1, CTV, and ONT.
“For a year now, the Lukashenko regime has been terrorizing its own population; even the worst PR manager should have noticed that,” said head of Libereco in Germany Marco Fieber. “The fact that global brands like Procter & Gamble, Mars, Henkel, Coca-Cola or PepsiCo continue to advertise on the dictator’s propaganda channels is a scandal.”
When the Associated Press asked Nestle for comment, the food and drink company replied in a statement, “As a matter of principle, we do not position ourselves along political lines in the countries where we operate, and we comply with all applicable laws and sanctions.” Nestle also announced that it had “significantly reduced” its advertising budget for Belarus.
The other companies identified as top advertisers have said little as their ads apparently appear alongside regular programs like “Order of Judas,” a weekly program that airs on state-owned CTV every Sunday night to run through lists of so-called “regime traitors,” “human degenerates,” “vile reptiles,” “abominations of the human race,” and “corpse-looking witches.” In other words, anyone who speaks out against a government that kidnaps, beats, and rapes those who stand against it.
“Order of Judas” and its aggressive, dehumanizing program also includes commentary from psychologists ready to suggest that those who would speak out against Lukashenko are, of course, mentally ill and unwell.
This is the treatment that made Tsimanouskaya realize that, if she got on a plane from Tokyo to Minsk, there was no telling what might await her—all because she had criticized her coaches for entering her into an Olympic event she had not trained for. After making it to safety, Tsimanouskaya said that her grandmother had gotten word to her that state TV was branding her as mentally ill, and that the twenty-four-year-old might be locked in a hospital or jailed should she return.
Like any good propaganda system, state-owned television in Belarus is used to change the way Belarusians see the world around them in ways that fit the regime. One recent documentary on CTV, “2020,” explains that the mass protests that erupted after the 2020 Belarusian presidential election were not spurred by the government’s documented fraud, but instead were a Western “color revolution” designed to overthrow the country’s benevolent dictator and turn good Belarusians against one another.
Belarusian state propaganda is nothing new, but it becomes a vital tool as the government tries to reassert control over a population teetering on open revolt against their violent ruler. When Belarusian journalists started resigning or refusing to tow the state line, they were replaced by imported Russian propagandists.
All of the dehumanizing declarations of traitors and public enemies being broadcast into every Belarusian living room and onto every phone helps to justify obscene violence against peaceful protesters and ordinary citizens who want a different president. And it is all bankrolled by companies making products that Americans and Europeans consume on a daily basis.
Western companies have been forced to pull advertising from networks spouting disinformation and hate before after public condemnation proved too harmful to their brands. When Fox News’s Tucker Carlson remarked in June 2020 that Black Lives Matter protests were “not about Black lives” and that viewers should “remember that when they come for you,” his advertisers dropped like flies. Disney, Papa John’s, T-Mobile, and more decided that having their ads and products alongside programming like that was either morally indefensible or commercially harmful. Since then and other similar advertiser exoduses, Fox News and other far-right media outlets in America have seen their advertising ranks thin considerably.
The same should happen today. Coca-Cola, Procter & Gamble, Pepsi, Mars, and more, are apparently funding full-on propaganda that elevates and protects a violent authoritarian regime, assisting it in declaring enemies of the state and deeming ordinary people inhuman garbage worthy of repression. It needs to be untenable for these brands to advertise on state-owned Belarusian networks.
When Krystsina Tsimanouskaya saw her face on Belarusian state TV, she knew she was in trouble. Western companies need to feel the same way.
Doug Klain is a program assistant with the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center. You can find him on Twitter @DougKlain.