Internet Censorship in Authoritarian Belarus

 

Belarusian Review
Spring 2010

GUEST EDITORIAL
by Viachaslau Bortnik

Something that every internet user in Belarus feared has finally happened. On February 1, 2010, Alexander Lukashenka signed a decree imposing censorship on the internet, approximately one year before the next presidential election. Lukashenka had previously been criticizing “anarchy on the internet”. After placing most of the traditional media under its control, the regime is pursuing an offensive against new media. The presidential election is scheduled to take place in early 2011 and Lukashenka plans to “win” again, (the last two presidential elections wherein Lukashenka retained power were widely viewed as fraudulent). Thus far, the internet has been one of the last places to express independent opinion in Belarus. The political opposition is fearful of being without any media access during the upcoming elections.

Under the new decree, internet providers, websites and internet users will be strictly controlled by the government and a special unit of the Presidential Administration – the Operating and Analytical Center. According to the decree “On Measures for Revising Use of the National Segment of the World Wide Web”, through an agreement with the President, the Center will define the list of “telecommunication operators, which have the right of direct access (interconnection) to international telecommunication systems, and authorized Internet service providers”. Any activity of a provider can be stopped by a decision of the Council of Ministers. The Center will be able to forbid access to information considered to be illegal according to Belarusian legislation and will control the registration of “.by” domain names. An internet service provider will be able to stop rendering internet service to anyone in cases that they find to constitute a “gross violation of law, further violation of the decree, and other acts of legislation”.

Although it is not yet clear how the decree’s provisions will be utilized in the new legislation, which takes effect on July 1, 2010, there is no doubt that behind the extensive control over internet access and online content, President Lukashenka has the obvious intention of reducing free expression in Belarus. Comments of Belarusian officials suggest that there is nothing positive on the horizon. The Belarusian Minister of Communication, Mikalai Pantsyalei, pointed out that visitors of internet cafes will have to show their passports for identification. Natallia Pyatkevich, the deputy head of Lukashenka’s Administration, said that the ideologists should serve as the original source of information, not oppositional websites. Behind the extensive control over internet access and online content President Lukashenka has the obvious intention to reduce free expression in Belarus.

Introduction of the scandalous decree resulted in criticism by the international community including the EU, OSCE, human rights organizations and the Belarusian Diaspora worldwide. The EU’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, said that the decree “is going to further restrict freedom of speech and freedom of media in Belarus after it takes force”. The EU regards this issue as an important step in the wrong direction and hopes the Belarusian authorities will review it. The OSCE has prepared an expert assessment of the decree, and provided the Belarusian government with a set of recommendations that include the following:
– Abolish mandatory identification of internet service users and their technical means used to connect to the internet.
– Clarify the meaning and procedure of introducing limitations and bans on spreading illegal information.
– Clarify the scope of responsibility of internet service providers in the event of failure to comply with an order by a relevant body to eliminate violations or to suspend internet services.
– Envision requiring state bodies and other public organizations to publish information not only on their activities, but also information which results from these activities.
– Abolish the requirement to include hyperlinks to the original information source in media outlet materials disseminated via the internet.

At the same time, activists of the Belarusan-American Association staged numerous protests against internet censorship in Washington and New York. The recent protest in front of the Newseum in the U.S. capital was supported by the international press watchdog group, Reporters Without Borders and covered by Voice of America. “Last year, the Belarusian government claimed that China was a model in terms of internet control. This year, President Lukashenka signed a decree subjecting online access to an identity check or to prior online authorization dependent on the content and the applicant. Now, in Minsk, people will censor themselves, which is the worst violation you can impose on freedom of speech”, said Clothilde Le Coz, Washington Director of the Reporters Without Borders, in her address to the protesters. In its monitoring of online freedom, Reporters Without Borders has, until now, classified Belarus as a country “under surveillance” because it has only one internet service provider, (Beltelekam), because access to opposition websites is blocked during major political events, and because internet café owners are required under a February 2007 decree to alert the police about customers who visit “sensitive” sites and keep a record of all the sites visited during the previous 12 months on each computer, making the information available to the police if requested. If more far-reaching internet censorship is imposed in Belarus, as contemplated by the new Decree, the country would be added to the list of countries such as North Korea, China and Iran, which are notorious for blocking internet freedom.

The Decree “On Measures for Revising Use of the National Segment of the World Wide Web” is to take effect on July 1, which does not leave much time to work out a comprehensive strategy. For years, the internet has been viewed by international experts as a key vehicle for promoting democracy in Belarus. In a worst case scenario, the internet will not be an area of free speech anymore. This would force the international community to find answers to tough questions. The U.S. and the EU should work together to facilitate international pressure on the Belarus government to compel a review of the onerous decree. The international community should promote public discussion on internet censorship in Belarus by organizing information campaigns, protests, conferences, mobilizing media and other grassroots activities. In this difficult situation, sufficient support should be provided to satellite TV and FM radio broadcasting.

Viachaslau Bortnik is currently pursuing an MA in Public Administration at the American University in Washington, DC.

Comments

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jbk

jbk

Ms. McGear response is

Ms. McGear response is clearly not factually based. What I would like to point out, however, is the rather strange manner in which it is worded. Ms. McGear, if that is the author's real name, is clearly not a native English speaker (despite her very English sounding name). Clearly a provocation, the question is by whom: BKGB? Lukamol? FSB?

It is true that the streets

It is true that the streets of Belarus are often much safer than in the US or UK.

But it is also true that the country is far less safe for people who have opinion different than that of the government, for enterpreneurs (big and small), journalists, students who want to travel abroad, people who want to speak Belarusian, workers who are stripped of their rights, ethnic minorities and many other groups of people.

Also, if you are from Belarus you are likely to be poor and need visa to travel almost to any developed country. And the visas are expensive and very difficult to get.

It is nice to visit Belarus from time to time - but try to live there with a Belarusian passport and a Belarusian salary for a couple of years - and then we'll talk again.

I'm really sorry for you. But

I'm really sorry for you. But it is your choice to live in delusion regarding situation in Belarus. For your next trip to Belarus schedule meetings with relatives of opponents of Lukashenka murdered by the regime and go visit Gomel region where people are dying of radiation left alone in their problems by the government. I would also advise you to read reports of human rights groups like Amnesty International that don't accept money from the governments (US or UK).

So, here we go again, another

So, here we go again, another corrupt liar paid by Washingnton to write calumnies against the only nation who has not subdued itself to the interests of the USA. The USA financed, instigated, organized and carried out riot revolutions in Georgia, Ukraine, Baltics, imprisoned leaders of the opposition in Latvia and Estonia who protested against the take over by the EU. The interest of the US was to disassemble the CCCP in different republics in order to place NATO missiles. Financed, corrupted and bribed officials in Ukraine, placed Timoshenko and lost the elections in 2005. They pressed and threatened the Supreme Court in Kiev in order to alter and negate the expression of the people who had rejected Timoshenko and forced a president against the will of the people. They lost again in 2010 and again tried to press and threaten the will of the people but this time they failed and their plans to settle Ukraine under NATO are ruined, but no doubt they will try again.

NATO had more than 100 spies against Russia, bribed and bought off. When a Estonian high official of the Defense Ministry in Estonia found out, he legitimally informed Russia that NATO was betraying the rules of a peacekeeping policy and as a result of it, they have incarcerated him and called him, "a traitor"

We know your kind, bastard author of these calumnies. There are hundred like you, impure, corrupt, evil, dishonest, you hate anything that has to do with values, fatherland, family, or life. You make your living by hanging out with the same people who drove the CCCP to despair, millions of Russians were lead to famine, drugs, child prostitution and you bastard traitor shamelessly and blatantly still write against the only nation who stands free.

I have lived in 8 countries, including UK and US. I cannot walk at night in the UK because it is too dangerous, they have the highest percentage of street criminals ever in the world. The British Consulate warns in his website of the "high risk of insecurity" in Belaruss. I have been in Belaruss countless times, from the most humble "daches" and villages to the most expensive streets of Minsk. I have never known any country more secure, healthier and well behaved than Belaruss.

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