Until now Belarus’ sole space for freedom, the Internet, has just been put under a regulatory microscope by the government in the wake of a repressive order which entered into effect in July 2010. The suspicious death of an online journalist has traumatised the profession. In the run-up to the elections, and during the demonstrations following the disputed re-election of Alexander Lukashenko, "Europe’s last dictator" civil society has witnessed crackdowns both offline, against demonstrators and journalists, and online, via blockings, cyberattacks and tampering.
Setting up an Internet filtering system
Decree No. 60 issued in February 2010, entitled “On measures for improving use of the national Internet network,” entered into effect on 1 July 2010. It establishes extensive control over Internet content and provides a framework for network access. It requires Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to register with the Ministry of Communications and Information and to provide it with technical details on the country’s online networks, systems and information resources. This decree also obliges ISPs to identify all the devices (including computers and mobile phones) which are being used to connect to the Internet. Similarly, all users going online in a cybercafé or using a shared connection (for example, in a condominium) now have to identify themselves, and a record of all online connections must be kept for one year. The aim of this measure is to dissuade citizens from continuing to inform themselves on independent and opposition websites.
The decree also provides for the creation of a Centre of Operations and Analysis (COA) attached to the president’s office, whose task it will be to monitor all content before it is put online. This measure clearly institutes censorship at the highest level of government. Any request by this Centre for a website closure will have to be carried out by the ISP concerned within 24 hours. Any protest against a website’s closing will need to be referred to a court.
The Ministry of Communications and Information has formulated a new regulation, effective as of 1 July, setting up a filtering system for controlling access to websites considered dangerous, including “extremist” sites, those linked with trafficking in arms, drugs, or human beings, and those which are pornographic or incite violence. Sites deemed as such will be banned by order of the Ministry of Communications and Information, the Committee for State Control, or the COA and will be rendered inaccessible from government organisations, state-owned companies and cybercafés. They could also be blocked from other Internet users by ISPs, which had until 1 September to procure the equipment needed to carry out the regulations.
Increased pressure on the media during the run-up to the presidential election
Intimidation campaigns against journalists and dissidents intensified during the run-up to the 2010 presidential election.
Website blockings and harassment follow the entry into force of Decree No. 60
On 6 July 2010, the Vitebsky Kuryer newspaper’s website was blocked by the Beltelecom national telecommunications operator, which controls bandwidth. The website, not registered with the authorities for ideological reasons, has now been blocked under Decree No. 60, and has had to migrate to another platform.
A news website based in the town of Vileika, vilejka.org, was blocked for several days as the result of a police investigation into comments posted by cybernauts. On 1 July, the police questioned one of the site’s users, Mikalai Susla, and confiscated his computer because they suspected him to be the site’s director. The latter said that the site had been blocked because of unfavourable comments about local and national policies, and that the crackdown was related to the fact that Decree No. 60 had just come into effect.
Natalia Radzina, chief editor of the opposition website charter97.org was again interrogated by police in Minsk on 1 July 2010 in connection with litigation over a comment made on her website. This was her fourth interrogation in four months.
On 23 June 2010, nine activist members of the Nazbol (National Bolshevik Party) staged an unauthorised demonstration on Freedom Square in Minsk, waving placards and wearing T-shirts with the words “Internet Freedom.” They were arrested and found guilty of “violating procedure for holding demonstrations." Their leader, Yawhen Kontush, was fined 875,000 Belarus roubles (about USD 324). The other participants were each sentenced to pay a fine of 175,000 roubles (about USD 65).
Journalists’ personal data in jeopardy
In April 2010, a senior police officer authorised police computer experts to access the e-mail accounts and Skype instant messages of several independent journalists whose computers had been seized during raids of their media offices and homes on 16 March. This happened as a result of defamation suits which a former KGB official, Ivan Korzh, brought against relatives of police officers arrested in connection with a case involving allegedly illegal hunting practices. Natalia Radzina, Svyatlana Kalinkina and Maryna Koktysh of the opposition newspaper Narodnaya Volya, as well as Iryna Khalip of the independent Russian daily Novaïa Gazeta are also concerned.
The authorities’ decision to access journalists’ e-mails and instant messaging constitutes a serious violation of both these media professionals’ communication methods and their privacy. Such practices place the reporters’ sources in jeopardy. Belarus authorities are particularly interested in identifying and monitoring contributors to Charter 97’s website. Police investigator Alyaksandr Puseu told Natallya Radzina that they had discovered no documents related to the defamation suit in the seized computers, but had found over 3,000 articles containing the keyword diktatura (dictatorship). The journalist was questioned in detail about how the website operates.
In 2009, Ivan Korzh had lodged a complaint in the aim of having an article posted on Charter97.org removed, entitled: “Relatives of arrested policemen complain about dictatorship.”
Impunity promotes self-censorship
On 3 September 2010, Oleg Bebenine, a Charter 97 journalist known for his criticisms of Belarus’ leadership, was found hanged in his country house near Minsk, the capital. The official finding of suicide is denied by his close relatives and associates, who believe that it was a politically motivated crime. Journalists covering this case have received death threats.
The Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ) – a Reporters Without Borders’ partner organisation and a 2004 Sakharov Prize recipient – sent letters to the Minister of Interior and to the public prosecutor calling for an objective and transparent investigation. To date, impunity reigns over this matter, adding to the oppressive climate of intimidation against media professionals and motivating them to resort to self-censorship.
Demonstrations against Lukashenko’s re-election : Attempts to block information
The president of Belarus, who has been in power for 16 years, was officially re-elected as a result of the December 2010 elections, which international observers have labelled “undemocratic.”
On 19 December 2010, protest demonstrations were held in Minsk after the announcement of the outgoing President’s victory with nearly 80% of the votes. Large gatherings were violently dispersed and over 600 people were arrested, including some 30 journalists.
Pressures also intensified online and on communications via cell phone. Calls made on 19 December around 8:00 p.m. could not get through anywhere in Belarus. A number of opposition and independent news sites were the victims of DdoS attacks which either made them inaccessible or caused them to display pseudo or “counterfeit” websites disseminating false information to which visitors were redirected. Thus, some sites with similar names, but registered with the suffix “.in,” appeared in place of charter97.org, as well as Belaruspartisan and Gazetaby, and even the newspaper Nasha Niva.
Blog platforms such as the highly popular LiveJournal experienced operating problems as of 19 December. In the early morning of 20 December, security agents entered the offices of the website charter97.org and several of their members were arrested by the KGB. Editor Natalia Radzina was struck in the head by police on 19 December. Released in late January 2011, she is still under house arrest and is being prosecuted for “participation in mass riots.” She may face a prison term of up to 15 years.
Continued reprisals and international solidarity for voices critical of the regime
Repression continued to plague Belarus’ society in the weeks following the election protests.
Several unprecedented cases of house arrests, coupled with the posting of security officers at opposition members’ homes and strict isolation measures, have been observed. Some of the latter have been barred from Internet access and from watching TV news.
In view of the extent of the protests, the well-known Polish dissident and politician Lech Walesa predicted that Belarusians would use new technologies to follow in the footsteps of Tunisia and relieve President Alexander Lukashenko of his duties.
In the meantime, the international community has been expressing increased solidarity with Belarusian civil society.
Since 2011, the European Union and the United States have imposed new sanctions against Minsk which include asset freezes and refusals to grant visas to the Belarus president and 150 of his close associates.
Estonia, a Balta state renowned for its expertise in the technology sector, stated in January 2011 that it was ready to put its cyber-expertise to work on behalf of the Belarusian opposition to teach them “how to manage their Internet websites and protect them against cyberattacks.” The NATO Cyber Security Centre is based in Estonia. The United States is said to have offered to join Estonians in their efforts to aid Belarus.
Human rights activists, who have already demonstrated how innovative they are by their successful online mobilisation efforts, are often skilled users of certain techniques for circumventing censorship and protecting personal data. However, in confronting a regime resolved not to loosen its grip, international assistance may prove to be a valuable asset to Belarusian netizens.