Will Belarus Increase Internet Censorship after December’s Financial Panic?
On 19 December, Belarus resorted to an unprecedented step to stop the rapidly unfolding panic on the foreign currency market. It blocked a dozen popular independent web sites, who published news on the growing financial trouble.
Previously, the authorities blocked Internet content only during times of major electoral campaigns. Now, they seem to use this approach to restricting the flow of information to resolve Belarus's growing economic problems, which are a byproduct of Russia's recession.
The recently adopted new amendments to the Law on Mass Media will give the authorities even more instruments to control and restrict Internet media freedoms ahead of the 2015 presidential elections and the ongoing economic instability.
The Russian Crisis Causes Panic in Belarus
The rapid devaluation of the Russia rouble in recent months has made many Belarusians excited, sending them on a spending for cheap cars and gadgets from Russia. The Belarusian authorities seemed to observe the situation with caution, as Belarus is deeply dependent on Russia economically, but they did not make any serious moves — until recently.
All of a sudden, in the second half of December rumours of a new round of devaluation began making its way around Belarusian society. Queues near currency exchange points started to grow, fuelled by Lukashenka's statement that Belarus is not going to devaluate its currency. People still remember the 2011 crisis well, when similar claims were made and followed by sharp round of devaluation, sending everyone rushing to currency exchange points.
The government, which also took lessons from 2011, this time reacted fast. On 19 December it ordered banks to stop selling foreign currency and, instead, trade it on the foreign exchange market. Shortly thereafter, it also introduced a 30% commission fee on the purchase of foreign currency to alleviate the panic and prevent another financial catastrophe. At that point two of the most popular web sites in Belarus, tut.by and onliner.by, were overloaded with visitors and broke down, as people wanted to know what the situation really was.
Realising the major role of Internet in how information is spread, the authorities decided to resort to a very radical measure – they blocked a number of independent web sites, which published information on financial developments.
Many of the most popular independent web sites were blocked, among them Charter97.org, belaruspartisan.org, prokopovi.ch, gazetaby.org, belapan.by, naviny.by, zautra.by and udf.by.
However, the authorities refused to take responsibility for this move. Beltelekam, the Belarusian state-owned Internet monopolist, claimed that its data processing centre was DDoSed and therefore some of the web sites of the Belarusian Internet zone might be inaccessible as a result.
The next day the Minister of Information Lilija Ananič gathered the editor-in-chiefs of all of the major independent Internet media outlets. According to the head of the Narodnaja Volia newspaper, Iosif Siaredzič, the Minister asked the media not to stir up panic in society. She urged them to take information only from official sources, and not to use insider information or anonymous leaks.
The editors in response declared their protest with the way the official sources provided information on 19 December, when society wanted to know what was going on while the authorities pretended that nothing happened.
The Belarusian journalists association released a statement where it called the blockage “a legal outrage”. It also said that “now the 2015 presidential elections campaign make no sense because de-facto the authorities have introduced informational state of emergency in Belarus”.
A Brief History of Internet Censorship in Belarus
The Belarusian authorities made their first moves to censor the Internet during the 2001 presidential campaign, when the Belarusian Internet still had very few users. The Security Council ordered that independent web sites block access to anyone independently monitoring the electoral process.
In late 2000s, when Internet usage became widespread in Belarus, the regime started to feel an acute need to restrict access to undesirable information. In 2010 Lukashenka ordered Internet providers to require the identity of users, and created a compulsory registration procedure for Belarusian Internet resources.
On 19 December 2010, the day of presidential elections, the authorities blocked both the belaruspartisan.org and charter97.org web sites. Since April 2011 access to these two sites has been permanently blocked in state institutions and educational establishments. Later, as the financial crisis unfolded, the authorities added to their black list the prokopovi.ch site, which became a source of unofficial person to person currency exchange and financial information.
In 2012, the famous petition site change.org was blocked, after it published a petition calling for the release of Anton Surapin and Siarhej Bašarymaŭ, who were arrested during the Teddy-bear bombing investigation. The same year, during parliamentary elections, the regime blocked the web sites of the Belarusian Christian Democracy party and the independent electoral observation campaign For Fair Elections.
As the Internet's role in political life grows in Belarus, the regime continues to come up with new ideas how to control the vast informational open space which accompanies it. The recent amendments to the Law on Mass Media are looking like a new powerful tool in the hands of government censors.
The 2014 Amendments Will Further Restrict Internet Freedom
Simultaneously alongside the country's growing financial troubles and the Internet information blackout, on 21 December Aliaksandr Lukashenka signed amendments to the Law on Mass Media. The puppet parliament adopted the amendments secretly so that journalists would not be able to discover its content ahead of its adoption.
The amendments essentially place Internet media on equal footing with print media Read more
The amendments essentially place Internet media on equal footing with print media, which means a web site can be closed after two perceived 'violations'. As far as what constitutes a violation, this is entirely up to the authorities to define as the law bans the “spread of information which could be harmful to the national interests of Belarus”. This vague language means that virtually anything the regime considers dangerous to its own existence could be targeted.
However, as Aliaksandr Klaskoŭski, a political commentator for Naviny.by claims, the Belarusian authorities will be unable to shut off Internet media completely. “The journalists will not agree to quote state agencies and write material [convenient to the authorities]. They will simply go underground and their content will become more radical”, the expert noted.
So far the Belarusian authorities have used drastic censorship measures only during major political campaigns. But as the economic crisis grows less and less manageable, coupled with the geopolitical tensions in the region, such measures may become a more frequent response to growing political and economic threats that the regime will have to face.
As the 2015 presidential elections are quickly approaching, the regime will seek to demonstrate its full control over the situation, no matter how tough the measures they need to enact may be.
Russian Media Attack Belarus: a Warning for Minsk?
The past few weeks have seen an unusual increase of anti-Belarusian activity in pro-government Russian media and blogs.
The Kremlin has not yet used its strongest media tools. However, the manner of the attack is in some respects similar to the information warfare which preceded Russia's annexation of Crimea.
In the face of the unfolding economic crisis in Russia and Belarus and the Belarusian presidential elections scheduled for 2015, this could signal a new shift in the relations between Russia and the regime of Alexander Lukashenka.
Second-tier media in action. Is more to come?
First, the widely-read pro-Kremlin blogger Aleksandr Shumsky has published a detailed post saying that Belarus was a natural part of Russia and suggesting that Russia should actively prevent attempts of a pro-Western revolution in Belarus.
Then, the popular entertainment TV channel REN TV on December 20 aired a half-hour long film about Belarus claiming that the West is preparing a coup d’etat in Belarus, criticising both the Belarusian opposition and the regime of Lukashenka.
Failing to spell the names of some Belarusian politicians and media outlets correctly, REN TV told its viewers about Western-sponsored bloody revolt being prepared in Belarus. This film came out as part of a three hours long marathon of anti-Western propaganda, along with conspiracy theories and homophobia.
The influential nationalistic online publication Sputnik & Pogrom is regularly publishing articles denouncing the right of Belarusians to have an independent state, denouncing the existence of the Belarusian language and culture.
Russian media portray the Belarusian democratic opposition as Nazis and accuse Lukashenka of being weak Read more
Other publications have in the past weeks been even more aggressive in criticising things like the growth of popularity of Belarusian traditional clothing or the non-Russocentric view of Belarusian history by Belarusians.
Some of the articles, in a typical manner, portray the Belarusian democratic opposition as Nazis and accuse Lukashenka of being weak and opportunistic. The fact that Lukashenka has maintained good relations with Ukraine in 2014 is also a topic for hysterically critical publications on different levels.
Although the media participating in this campaign do not always have a formal affiliation with the Kremlin, in today's Russia there can be no illusions as to the orchestration of such things or at least their approval by state ideologists.
Anti-Belarusian propaganda has not yet reached the scale that the propaganda targeting Ukraine or the Baltic states in the past. For instance, first-tier nationwide TV channels have not yet been seriously involved in the latest round of attacks. However, this scale has certainly become the largest since a series of anti-Lukashenka films titled The Godfather aired in 2010 on the Gazprom-controlled TV channel NTV.
Lukashenka as the long-time hero of Russian nationalists
Russia's annexation of Crimea and the war in Eastern Ukraine, motivated by Russian nationalistic slogans, were preceded by a long-term information campaign. Numerous books, magazine articles and films aiming to discredit Ukrainian statehood, the Ukrainian language and culture, to demonise the Ukrainian independence movement, have been published over the past two decades and prepared the foundations for the tragic events of 2014.
At the same time, over the past years there has almost been no similar propaganda targeting Belarus. Russian nationalistic circles have never needed to resist growing Belarusian nationalism.
Lukashenka has been viewed as a hero and even as a desired ruler of Russia Read more
The authoritarian regime of Alexander Lukashenka, established with direct Russian support and enjoying serious political and financial aid from Russia over the past two decades, has always had an ideology very close to Russian (or Soviet) revanchism.
In 1995, Lukashenka has de-facto restored Soviet state symbols and reintroduced Russian language as the dominating language in Belarus. The regime has cracked down the Belarusian national revival at the very same time as it has cracked down democracy and human rights.
Therefore, for the past two decades Russian nationalists could have viewed their goals regarding Belarus as almost achieved, with the exception of a formal incorporation of Belarus into Russia. Lukashenka has been viewed as a hero and even as a desired ruler of Russia by many Russian conservatives and nationalists.
Belarus: Kremlin’s next victim or its Trojan Horse?
The activation of anti-Belarusian propaganda in Russian media can be a warning and an indicator of Kremlin’s Belarusian agenda for 2015. For, in late 2014, the danger of an actual annexation of Belarus is higher than in previous years.
Russian society has greeted the incorporation of Crimea with great enthusiasm. Following this, approval ratings of President Vladimir Putin have been at an all-time high. However, towards the end of 2014 Western sanctions and falling oil prices have led Russia into an economic crisis.
The approval ratings are bound to fall, which creates a temptation for the Kremlin to repeat the "small and victorious" enlargement of Russia’s territory. And for this purpose, the compact, controlled and internationally isolated Belarus could be an attractive target.
Moreover, in 2015, presidential elections are scheduled to take place in Belarus. Together with a growing risk of a serious economic crisis in Belarus, this creates vulnerability and a window of opportunities for the Kremlin.
In this information war Lukashenka may just be a Trojan Horse in Kremlin’s hands Read more
This also corresponds with what Gleb Pavlovsky, a former Kremlin ideologue and PR mastermind, said in his recent interview when commenting on the media attack being mounted against Lukashenka "[Putin’s system today] can’t bear any compromises and must turn an insecure ally [like Lukashenka] into an enemy".
Moreover, the criticism of Lukashenka will be a good topic for the Kremlin to turn society’s attention away from the economic problems and the failure of the war in eastern Ukraine, Pavlovsky said.
On the other hand, there is a less widespread opinion out there that in this latest information war Lukashenka is just a Trojan Horse in the Kremlin’s hands. Some Belarusian activists suggest that this wave of propaganda may have been initiated by Lukashenka himself using his regime's influence in the Russian media.
This could help him gain support from progressive circles inside Belarus and get sympathy and support from the West ahead of the 2015 elections. As to Lukashenka's actions in the Ukrainian crisis, several Russian pro-government commentators agree that his actions are being coordinated with the Kremlin or even follow Kremlin's instructions.
“His dependence on Russia is enormous, and everybody understands that”, says an expert quoted by the notorious pro-Kremlin online outlet Vzglyad. Despite all the seeming disloyalty on Ukraine, Lukashenka is nevertheless continuing on with Belarus' growing involvement into Russia-led post-Soviet integration bodies, writes Viktor Militarev, a Russian right-wing writer and activist, in a column for Izvestia, the largest pro-government newspaper in Russia.
Anyway, if the media attacks on Lukashenka continue and keep growing in terms of their scale and prominence, this time it might indeed be more than just another staged conflict between Russia and its capricious vassal.
Alexander (Aleś) Čajčyc is a Moscow-based writer, consultant and member of the Rada of the Belarusian Democratic Republic