Belarus-China Relations: More Hype than Substance?

On 10-12 May, Chinese president Xi Jinping capped off his Eurasia trip with a visit to Minsk. As during his prior stops in Kazakhstan and Russia, the Chinese leader was sizing up the opportunities, as well as the risks, of deepening ties with countries in the Eurasian Economic Union.

Over the past two decades, Belarus has achieved a high level of confidence in its political relations with China, mainly through international support for China's policies. Squeezed between the EU and Russia, Belarus has sought to strengthen ties with a third power to gain greater independence in its foreign relations. However, economically speaking, Belarus has little to offer to China other than potash fertilisers.

A "Historic" Visit to Belarus

When Xi's presidential plane landed in Minsk, the Belarusian media was quick to call the visit “historic,” marking a new epoch in Belarus-China relations. No high-level Chinese leader has visited Belarus since 2001. Needless to say, President Lukashenka personally greeted and saw off President Xi at the airport.

The countries signed a number of agreements, which include Chinese investment in Belarusian railroads, industrial enterprises, and Big Stone, a Belarusian-Chinese industrial park. The Chinese leader also suggested that Belarus participates in China’s New Silk Road, an ambitious project to upgrade the transport and communications infrastructure connecting China to Europe.

Among the usual diplomatic niceties about friendship and cooperation, Xi commended the important role Lukashenka has played in working toward peace in Ukraine, “which was highly praised by the international community."

Of course, Xi was not in Minsk simply to compliment to Lukashenka.

Aliaksandr Filipaŭ, a former Asia analyst at the Presidential Analytical Centre in Minsk, told Belarus Digest that Xi Jinping had a few hidden items on his agenda.

First and foremost, he was examining how trade integration was proceeding under the Eurasian Economic Union between Kazakhstan, Russia, and Belarus, and whether China stands to gain or lose from it.

Xi also wanted to assess whether the economic downturn in Belarus might harm the projects that China has financed through export credits. Not least, Xi was eager to secure long-term contracts at cheap prices for Belarusian potash fertiliser, a critical input for China's large farm sector. China is the world's top consumer of agrochemicals and potash fertilizer. China is even exploring the possibility of acquiring Belaruskali, Belarus's potash extraction and export giant.

From Minsk's perspective, Xi’s visit afforded a unique opportunity to show that Belarus can successfully pursue a "multi-vector" foreign policy, and that it has the stature to host world leaders. In particular, Lukashenka seeks to demonstrate to Belarus's neighbouring powers, Russia and the EU, that his country can increase its room for diplomatic manoeuvre. All the while, the government prevented the Belarusian media from publishing any critical analysis of China's commercial contracts and interests in Belarus.

High Politics and Poor Business

Despite a long history of mutual visits, it was only after 2006 that China became a foreign policy priority for Belarus. At the time, Russia announced its plans to significantly raise the price of oil and gas exports to Belarus. China was fast becoming a global superpower and an alternative partner to the West, making it the most suitable candidate to balance Russia's influence.

China was reluctant to engage Belarus economically because of the country's Soviet-style management culture and lack of a market economy

To draw the Asian power’s attention, Belarus actively supported the One China policy, as well as other Chinese policies, in the international arena. China returned the favour by condemning interference in Belarus’ internal affairs, in the face of Western critics of Lukashenka’s undemocratic politics.

Another goal of cooperating with China, to receive ample investments and cheap loans, proved far more difficult to achieve. Adhering to a pragmatic foreign policy, China felt it was enough to offer political support to Belarus. Chinese diplomats apparently told their western colleagues in the mid-2000s that they were reluctant to engage Belarus economically because of the country's Soviet-style management culture and lack of a market economy. To this day, Chinese FDI in Belarus remain very low, a sober reflection of China's lukewarm attitude.

Belarusian media like to report huge figures for Chinese loans, and often misconstrue them as "investments." The reports never mention that most of these deals originate with the Export-Import Bank of China, which offers export financing for Chinese goods and services. Under the terms of such loans, the general share of Chinese equipment, works and services is to be no less than 50% of the value of project financing. Such projects may modernise Belarusian industry, but they raise many questions in terms of economic expediency.

For a long time, Belarusian official propaganda has exaggerated Belarus’ importance for China, referring to Belarusian-Chinese relations as a "strategic partnership," the highest level of relations in the hierarchy of Chinese foreign policy. However, the Chinese themselves agreed to this formula only in 2013. According to a 2007 cable leaked out of the US Embassy in Minsk, Chinese Deputy Ambassador Jiang Xiaoyang described Belarus-China relations as having “more hype than substance."

The false image of cooperation largely targets a domestic audience, as well as constituting a veiled threat to Russia that Belarus is capable of establishing alternative alliances.

Does Belarus Have Anything to Offer China?

The problem for Belarus in its relationship with China is that it cannot offer any significant projects for investment. Lukashenka has promoted his country as a gateway to both the Eurasian Economic Union and the EU, but this rhetoric lacks practical meaning. China established strategic partnerships with the EU and Russia long before Belarus and has external trade turnover of around $500 billion with EU and $90 billion with Russia, but only $4 billion with Belarus.

But Chinese companies remain reluctant to invest in Belarus because of its poor business environment and Soviet-style management culture, and the actual level of Chinese FDI in Belarus remains extremely low.

Although the Belarusian media has reported billions of dollars worth of contracts, the reports fail to mention that China only offers loans and investments that are tied to procurement of goods and services from China.

According to Filipaŭ, Belarus currently has nothing to offer China but potash. Conversely, the New Silk Road, which Xi has offered Belarus to join, hardly concerns Belarus at all. It primarily targets the development of China's western regions, and its economic feasibility remains in doubt.

The Big Stone Industrial Park, the largest and most promising joint initiative, risks faltering due to red tape and poor management. Technologically, Belarus lags decades behind China. There may be room to cooperate on military technology, but both countries receive much of this technology from Russia already.

Belarus needs China's help across the board – diplomacy, capital, and technology. China is beginning to oblige, but will move forward with caution. In the meantime, a niche area for bilateral cooperation is in information technologies that facilitate government control. As its recent actions show, Minsk is prone to control and censor the Internet. More likely than not, China, a fellow authoritarian regime, will be happy to share its ample experiences in digital repression.




Belarus – The Land Of Apolitical Internet Users

In the first week of January various media reported that  under Belarusian law browsing foreign web sites on the territory of Belarus became a crime. Soon it became clear that the new law did not target ordinary citizens.  A week after the worries around the new law had subsided the online research agency Gemius published the results of its November study. According to the study, the Internet audience in Belarus has reached the record 4 million people and the level of Internet penetration is already more than 50%.

Even despite the authoritarian political realities a growing number of Belarusians freely navigate the World Wide Web, including independent information portals and opposition web pages. However, the Gemius data shows that such web sites are not very popular among ordinary people. And it means that even on the background of massive political repression against civil society and the latest economic turmoil the Belarusians remain mostly apolitical.

The Internet Nation

Gemius does regular measurements of the audience of the biggest Belarusian web sites. It should be noted, however, that not all the web sites are covered by the research — only those that give permission for that. That is why the study does not feature the most popular Belarusian Internet portal — tut.by on one can find everything – from news to jobs and maps. Its daily audience is roughly 1.8 million people.  

Nonetheless, Gemius provides quite a telling and systemic overall picture of the Belarusian Internet. Importantly, the company’s archives help understand the dynamic of different data and identify various trends.

According to the study carried out in November 2011, from the gender point of view the Belarusian Internet is a zone of absolute equality: 51,3% of the Internet audience in Belarus is represented by female users and, respectively, 48,7% by male users. The age structure of the Internet audience is as follows:

Age group

% out of total audience

15-18

9,77

19-24

21,8

25-34

29,97

35-44

19,31

45-54

13,39

55+

6,48

Thus, the Internet penetration indicator in the country is quite high and already higher than in Ukraine and Russia. Internet users are more or less evenly distributed across the gender and age groups. As a result, the role of the Internet as a source of information and communication for the majority of the population is growing. More and more Belarusians create their accounts in social networks such as Odnoklassniki.ru, Facebook and Vkontakte.ru. On Facebook, for example, the number of ‘Belarusian accounts’ grew in the last half a year by 15%. Belarusians aged 25-34 years comprise the most fast-growing group here.

The Internet is gradually displacing the traditional mass media. The latter’s role in Belarus is diminishing. This is particularly true of newspapers. The falling circulation of the biggest state paper ‘Sovetskaya Belarus’ serves as a vivid example of this trend. In January 2012 the circulation dropped by 11,8% (from 400,000 in December to 352, 860). Even though the paper enjoys large-scale administrative support  – most of its circulation is literally forced on state enterprises and institutions – these might be very telling numbers.

Free To Choose

The most interesting data from the studies conducted by Gemius concern the web sites that are most popular among Belarusian Internet users. This data reveals clear thematic preferences. According to Gemius, in November 2011 the top-10 Belarusian web sites by the number of visitors (real users) were:

1. mail.ru (mail service)

2. yandex.by (search engine)

3. odnoklassniki.ru (social network)

4. onliner.by (technology and gadgets reviews)

5. livejournal_by (blogging platform)

6. deal.by (online shop)

7. zaycevnet.by (music sharing)

8. irr.by (online classifieds)

9. abw.by (car classifieds and reviews) 

10.by.all.biz (equivalent of yellow pages)

As we can see, among the top-10 there are different types of Internet shops (5), an email service, search engine, social network and a music portal. In other words, it is entertainment and shopping that Belarusian Internet users are mostly interested in. Only one page (livejournal_by) in the top-10 has some political content. And there is not a single news site – either governmental or independent.

One possible explanation for such a low level of interest to news and politics might be that the economic situation in Belarus stabilized in November 2011 after Belarus secured various economic subsidies from Russia after the agreements on the Single Economic Space, Beltransgas deal and gas contracts were signed in Moscow. To test this hypothesis we can look at the top-10 Belarusian web pages in, for example, June 2011. At that time Belarus was in the middle of currency crisis and the silent protests were in full swing.

Here are the top-10 web sites by the number of visitors (real users) that Gemius named in its study in June 2011:

1. mail.ru (mail service)

2. yandex.by (search engine)

3. odnoklassniki.ru (social network)

4. onliner.by (technology and gadgets reviews)

5. zaicevnet.by (music sharing)

6. livejournal_by (blogging platform)

7. naviny.by (news)

8. deal.by (online shop)

9. av.by (car classifieds and reviews) 

10. charter97.org (news)

The top-10 list in June had two independent from the government news pages – naviny.by and charter97.org. However, as the statistics provided by Gemius shows, each of these sites was visited by only about 10% of the Belarusian Internet users. To compare: the top-3 web sites (mail.ru, yandex.by and odnoklassniki.ru) were each popular among roughly 50% of the Internet users in Belarus.

The data in the archives of Gemius shows that in 2009-2011 the thematic priorities of the Belarusian Internet audience were almost unchanged. Entertainment and shopping were high on the preferences list, but news and analytics were either absent from the top-10 list at all or among its outsiders.

Why Are Belarusians So Apolitical?

Despite the authoritarian political system Belarusian citizens are free to use the Internet and choose what they want to read or watch there. But the research findings demonstrate that the majority of the Belarusian Internet users do not make use of this freedom in order to access uncensored news and analytical web sites. In other words, people choose to be apolitical.

The reasons why the Belarusians are so apolitical are multiple and need to be thoroughly researched. However, one reason clearly lies on the surface – no attractive and trustworthy political group has emerged which would make the Belarusians believe that reading political news will be of any importance to the future of the country.




Browsing Foreign Web Sites is not a Crime in Belarus

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.

 




Choking the Social Networks Revolution

Western media often spread myths about the extent of Internet censorship in Belarus.  Many have the impression that all or many social media sites have been shut down or blocked by Belarusian KGB. The truth is that unlike television or FM radio, Internet access remains largely unrestricted in Belarus. 

Because only a small fraction of Belarusians use Internet to get political information, authorities are rather relaxed about Internet censorship. They usually intervene to temporarily block certain Internet web sites around the dates of scheduled protests. In addition, they effectively use traditional methods against pro-democracy activists such as arrests and pressure on protestors' universities and employers.

Vkontakte is the most popular social network in Belarus which Belarus authorities actively target.  The network headquartered in Russia looks very similar to Facebook. Vkontakte is hosting the "Movement for the Future – Revolution Through Social Network" group, where citizen actions are announced, commented and reported on.  Instead of blocking the whole network, Belarusian authorities deploy more creative approaches.

For instance, around 22 June a fake page appeared for Belarusian users, informing them that the group page was infected by a virus, and trying to collect information about their accounts from them.  On 4 July, the group’s main page was closed for all visitors globally by the administration of Vkontakte, supposedly for violations of the rules by the group. The group’s page was then reopened with 10 times less members than it used to have (was around 200,000 and is now around 20,000). Around 13 July, access to the whole Vkontakte site was blocked inside Belarus for several hours before and during the action of that day.

Security services also visit pro-democracy activists who can be easily identified on social networks. In addition, the authorities increasingly harass bloggers. The most notable criminal cases for defamation were initiated against Andrei Poczobut and Evgeny Lipkovich. Security service agents also conduct "preemptive talks" with pro-democracy activists and detain the most active for short periods of time.  Authorities can put pressure on virtually every employer or university in Belarus. The economy is still in state hands in Belarus and most people work on the basis of short-term employment contracts. With rising unemployment the prospect of losing a job is enough to deter many from active protests.

Finally, around the dates of protests opposition and independent web sites are routinely subjected to denial of service attacks. That involves saturating the target web site with an overwhelming number of external requests. The web site then cannot respond to legitimate traffic, or responds so slowly as to be rendered effectively unavailable. Charter97, Nasha Niva and Euroradio web sites are the main targets of attackers.

The Western media often overestimate penetration of Internet and social networks in Belarus. Although the role of Internet in Belarus is steadily increasing, it is far from being the dominant source of information. According to a May survey of the Independent Institute for Sociological and Political Studies, 33% of the adult population in Belarus received information from the Internet and only 2.2% – from social networks. This 33% include hard line supporters of the authorities and those who never read any political news on Internet.

Only around 2% of the Belarusians use Facebook. Twitter is even less popular. According to various estimates, there are less then 50 thousand Twitter users in all regions of Belarus. However, the authorities take no chances and actively use trolling and jamming on the days of street actions. Security services use nicknames very similar to those of pro-democracy activists and independent media to spread false news and negative comments. That makes it very difficult for pro-democracy activists to rely on Twitter.

Because of the small numbers and chaotic character of social networks protests security services can crack down on them with relative ease.

Most analysts agree that only when "ordinary" Belarusians begin to protest the situation may pose a serious threat to authorities. The vast majority of Belarusians relies almost exclusively on television and FM radio to receive information. These media are strictly controlled in Belarus and wide-scale crossborder broadcasts from neighbouring Poland and Lithuania remain possible only in theory.

YK




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.




Reporters Without Borders is concerned about the government’s plans to tighten control of the Internet in Belarus

Belarus authorities has threatened to introduce censorship on the Internet about a year before the next presidential election. Under a recently published draft decree “On Measures for Revising Use of the National Segment of the World Wide Web”, websites and Internet users would be strictly controlled by the government and a special unit of the Presidential Administration.

The international press freedom organization Reporters Without Borders has made a statement of protest expressing its concern over the plans of the Belarusian government to tighten control over the Internet:

Government tightens grip on Internet
Published on 6 January 2010

Reporters Without Borders is worried about the government’s plans to tighten control of the Internet in a country where free expression is already restricted. President Alexander Lukashenko acknowledged on 30 December that his government is putting the final touches to a bill to this effect. The draft decree was leaked to the media on December 14, 2009. The discussions around it remain secret.

“We must emphasize our concern about this bill, which threatens online free speech and everyone’s right to express their views anonymously without fear of government repression,” Reporters Without Borders said. “After placing most of the traditional media under its control, the regime is pursuing an offensive against new media.”

The press freedom organisation added: “The president’s attempts to be reassuring cannot hide the repressive nature of this bill, which is liable to make netizens censor themselves. It should be abandoned so that Belarus is not added to the list of countries such as North Korea, China and Iran that Reporters Without Borders has identified as Enemies of the Internet.”

The bill would require all online publications to be registered and everyone going online to be identified, both in Internet cafés and at home. Internet café clients would have to show an ID document in order to go online, while Internet Service Providers (ISPs) would have to keep a record of this information and report it to the police, courts and the special agencies that monitor all news content published in Belarus.

Each website would have to register under a procedure to be defined by the cabinet and approved by the presidential office’s Centre for Operations and Analysis, which would be in charge of monitoring site content. If the site has information about Belarus, it would have to be registered under a Belarusian domain name (with the .by suffix).

Finally, ISPs would be forced to block websites deemed by government agencies to be “extremist.” This would be done without referring to any court.

Read the full text at Reporters Without Borders web site.

SB