Reporters Without Borders is concerned about the latest measures adopted by the government with the aim of tightening its grip on the Internet. The police are using interrogation and seizure of equipment to harass and intimidate Internet users and online journalists, while new legislation is reinforcing control of Internet usage and restrictions on online free expression.
“The authorities are trying to get a firm grip on the Internet as they already have on other media,” Reporters Without Borders said. “These campaigns of intimidation have been growing as a presidential election approaches. They must be brought to an end to permit the pluralistic debate and criticism that are necessary for any free election.”
Decree No. 60 “On measures for improving use of the national Internet network,” issued last February, took effect on 1 July. It establishes extensive control over Internet content and access, and requires Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to register with the communication and information ministry and provide technical details about online information resources, networks and systems.
The decree also requires ISPs to identify all the devices (including computers and mobile phones) that are being used to connect to the Internet. The aim of this provision is clearly to allow the government to control online access.
At the same time, anyone going online in an Internet café or using a shared connection (for example, in an apartment building) now has to identify themselves, while a record of all online connections will have to be kept for a year. All these measures will inevitably discourage people from visiting independent and opposition websites.
The decree also creates a “Centre of Operations and Analysis” (OAC) attached to the president’s office that will be tasked with monitoring content before it is put online – clearly establishing censorship at the highest level of government. Every request by this centre for a website’s closure must now be carried out by the ISP concerned within 24 Hours.
New regulations drafted by the communication and information ministry that took effect on 1 July introduced a filtering system for controlling access to websites that are considered dangerous, including “extremist” sites and sites linked to pornography, violence and trafficking in arms, drugs or human beings.
Sites banned by the communication and information ministry, the Centre of Operations and Analysis and the Committee for State Control will be rendered inaccessible from state agencies, state companies and Internet cafés. They could also be rendered inaccessible for other Internet users by ISPs, which have until 1 September to acquire the equipment necessary for implementing the regulations.
Harassment and website blocking
State-owned Internet service provider Beltelecom began yesterday to block access to the Vitebsky Kuryer’s newspaper’s website (www.kurier.vitebsk.by). The site had not been registered with the authorities for ideological reasons and it has been blocked under Decree No. 60.
Vilejka.org, a news website based in the town of Vileyka, has been blocked as a result of a police investigation into comments posted on the site. Police questioned one of the site’s users, Mikalay Susla, on 1 July on suspicion of being the site’s director. His computer was also confiscated. Susla told Reporters Without Borders he thought the site had been blocked because of criticism of local and national policies, and that the crackdown was linked with the fact that Decree No. 60 had just come into effect.
Natalia Radzina, the editor of the Charter ’97 opposition website (www.charter97.org), was interrogated in Minsk on 1 July about a comment posted on the site. It was the fourth time she has been interrogated since March.
The computers and equipment that were seized from the Charter ’97 office in March in connection with an earlier case have never been returned (http://en.rsf.org/belarus-journalists-emails-probed-charter-29-04-2010,37233.html).
Nine members of the National Bolshevik Party (Nazbol) meanwhile staged an unauthorised demonstration on Freedom Square in Minsk on 23 June, waving placards and wearing T-shirts with the words “Internet Freedom.” They were all arrested and convicted of violating procedures for holding demonstrations. Leader Yawhen Kontush was fined 875,000 roubles (236 euros). The others were fined 175,000 roubles (47 euros) each.