Browsing Foreign Web Sites is not a Crime in Belarus

Photo: humanrightshouse.org

Last Friday the Library of Congress website published an article called 'Belarus: Browsing Foreign Websites a Misdemeanor'. The story authored by Peter Roudik raised a huge wave of attention first in the blogosphere and then in the mainstream media. The titles were truly sensational. 'Belarus Breaks the Internet, Raises the Digital Iron Curtain' wrote Forbes yesterday. 'Belarus Makes it a Crime to Visit Foreign Websites' was another title. Even the BBC repeated the story.

According to these media outlets Belarusians will soon be prohibited from visiting foreign websites and will face fines if they fail to obey. They also wrote about an introduction of new fines for visiting websites blacklisted by the government. Radio Free Europe, also published an article Belarus Restricts Use of Foreign Web Sites but then promptly removed it. They probably did so for a good reason.

The original Library of Congress story authored by a Moscow-born and -educated lawyer looked sensational because it twisted a number of facts. The speed with which the misleading story filled the mainstream media without being properly checked was truly remarkable. So what is the new Belarusian law about?

 
Restrictions Are Neither New Nor Target Belarusian Internet Users
 
Although this law as many other Belarusian laws is ambiguous in some respects, it is absolutely clear that it does not target regular internet users in Belarus. Instead, the newly amended Article 22.16 of the Code on Administrative Offenses applies only to internet businesses registered in Belarus. It is obvious for lawyers that the Administrative Code is not making any activities a crime, because it is not a Criminal Code.
 
Essentially the Administrative Code requires that businesses registered in Belarus which sell goods or render services using the internet physically locate their networks and computer systems inside Belarus or register them in Belarus. Failure to do so may result in an administrative fine. Once again - this rule only targets internet businesses. That means that 'non-commercial' internet users such as bloggers, journalists, and social networks activists are not going to be affected by it.
 
Moreover, this rule is not actually new. The provision which limits Belarusian businesses' ability to use foreign-based hardware to sell goods or render services in Belarus has been in effect since July 2010. The new amendments which will become effective this month merely add a fine for failure to comply with this rule.
 
It appears that the main motivation behind the rule is to combat tax evasion which was very common amongst Belarusian internet stores until recently. Because credit cards are not widely used in the country, most goods on Belarusian Internet shops are sold for cash and it was difficult for authorities to track those purchases and collect taxes. Although the effectiveness of this rather Draconian method to combat tax evasion is questionable, it was certainly not directed against dissidents.
 
Government Black Lists
 
The Library of Congress article also informed that 'the Law authorizes the government to establish and update the list of banned websites to which access should be blocked by Internet providers. The Law mentions pornographic websites and those that contain information of an extremist nature as examples of those to be blocked.' BBC web site subsequently added its own twist: 'anyone found accessing "extremist" or "pornographic" websites will also be fined, the law says.'
 
Both stories fail to mention an important detail - these restrictions can be introduced only in state bodies, public organizations, as well as educational and cultural establishments. Again only internet providers can be liable under this law if they fail to limit access to 'harmful' web sites in state organizations, libraries, etc. In other words, fines can be imposed against internet service providers but not Internet users. Needless to say, there are no fines for accessing blacklisted web sites.
 
'Occasional' Internet Censorship in Belarus
 
In practice, most Internet users in Belarus face no browsing restrictions. Non-government and opposition-leaning websites are much more popular in Belarus than those controlled by the state. Moreover, according to the International Telecommunication Union, Belarus has 46% internet penetration which is higher than in Ukraine (33.9%) or Russia (43%). Most Belarusians face no restrictions on accessing either foreign or domestic websites.
 
Of course, the situation with freedom of speech and internet is not as good as in democratic countries. Many state organizations block access not only to pornographic websites, but also to certain opposition websites which they deem harmful. As with the previous myth about the prohibition of browsing foreign websites, these restrictions are not new. The authorities have been doing it for years and nothing significant has happened on this front recently. Although internet users may be prevented from accessing blacklisted websites from their work computers, they can easily do so at home.
 
Another problem in Belarus is that opposition websites often face suspicious attacks. They occur not only around election times or during the recently attempted social networks revolution but also in 'peaceful' times. For instance, last week the popular political website charter97 was temporarily disabled by a cyber attack.
 
The authorities are also known to intercept Skype conversations and internet correspondence of opposition activists. Although the Belarusian security services do not have unlimited technical capabilities to monitor everybody, they are certainly not constrained by Belarusian laws or human rights concerns.
 
At the same time, the situation regarding internet freedom in Belarus appears to be better than in many other post-Soviet States. For example, since August 2011 Kazakhstan has completely blocked access to Livejournal - the most popular blogging platform in the country.
 
Why the BBC Got It Wrong
 
The story about browsing foreign websites in Belarus shows that Western journalists often prefer to rely on secondary sources and translations rather than original materials. Although Mr Rounik of the Library of Congress was able to read the original legal text published in Russian, the title of his article was misleading and it twisted a few facts as explained above. Not only did the story distort the language of the law, it kept using the Soviet-era word 'Belorussians' to refer to residents of Belarus. Any spell-checker knows that since 1991, the country's residents are called 'Belarusians' in English.
 
It is understandable that even the largest library in the world can make mistakes. What is more surprising is that reputable media such as the BBC apparently preferred not to double check the original law or read Belarusian lawyers' comments such as those recently published by the independent Belarusian Journalists Association. Instead, they decided to quickly publish a sensational story to attract more readers.
 
There is no doubt that the poor international reputation of Belarus, dubbed 'the last dictatorship in Europe' by George W. Bush, contributed to this wave of misinformation. The country's reputation provides a fertile ground for all kinds of myths and speculations. Getting the facts right is more than an issue of journalistic ethics. It is also an important precondition to influence what is going on in Belarus.

 

Yarik Kryvoi is the editor-in-chief of Belarus Digest and the founder of the Ostrogorski Centre.

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