While Belarus sinks into political isolation and an economic slump, President Lukashenko’s regime has been strenghtening its grip on the Web. The Internet – a mobilization and information platform – has received the full brunt of the authorities’ brutal crackdown on the opposition.
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The Internet has played a crucial role in a climate marked by intensified censorship and a hunt for journalists. Foreign – and particularly Russian – reporters are now personae non gratae. Some 100 Belarusian journalists were interrogated in 2011 alone, and over 30 given prison terms, as were Irina Khalip, correspondent for the independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, and Natalia Radzina, editor of the Charter97.org website, who was forced to seek asylum in Lithuania. Pressures on netizens and the number of cyberattacks on the media have been multiplying. Surveillance has become routine.
Internet filtering, provided for by Decree 60 (see the Belarus chapter of the 2011 “Enemies of the Internet” report) has increased. The blacklist of blocked websites, which has been steadily growing since the unrest of December 2010, now includes the news website Charter97.org, the opposition website belaruspartisan.org, the human rights NGO Viasna’s website, and humorist Yauhen Lipkovich’s blog on LiveJournal.
Crackdown intensified in times of unrest
In December 2010, demonstrations against the re-election of Lukashenko led the regime to intensify its crackdown. A new series of destabilizing events induced it to try to impose a genuine blackout on media coverage of the Minsk metro bombing in April 2011. Journalists deemed too focused on the investigation were labeled “scoundrels” and “criminals,” and were accused of “disseminating false information” and “defamation.” The Charter97.org and belaruspartisan.org websites, known for their criticisms of government policy, were the target of cyberattacks. On 12 April 2011, Belarusian Prosecutor General Grigory Vasilevitch set the tone by openly declaring that he wanted “to restore order” on the Web.
In June and July 2011, peaceful anti-regime demonstrations were harshly repressed: hundreds of people were arrested, including dozens of journalists, and the Internet was partially blocked during “silent protests” without slogans or banners, which took place throughout the country. In addition to denouncing the regime itself, participants objected to deteriorating living conditions and the devaluation of their currency. The “Revolution through Social Networks” campaign, widely circulated on Twitter via hashtag #2206v1900 and on the Russian-language version of Facebook, Vkontakte, spread like wildfire.
Intimidation and “preventive conversations”
In view of the mobilization’s magnitude, Belarusian authorities began to take the offensive on the Internet. The “Revolution through Social Networks” group, which boasted 216,000 members, was shut down by Vkontakte just before the 3 July 2011 protests. It reopened the next day at a new address, losing many participants in the process. The Vkontakte website was blocked for several hours on 13 July 2011 by several Internet Service Providers (ISPs), including ByFly. On 3 July, the Belarusian service website of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty was hit by a distributed denial of service attack (DDoS) that shut it down for several hours.
Under pretense of a “friendly get-together,” the police invited some netizens to “preventive conversations” in order to persuade them to stop protesting and covering the protests. Despite these pressures, many blogs and online media such as euroradio.by, Babruiski Rehiyanalny Portal (in Babruisk), Silnye Novosti (in Gomel), and Ximik.info (in Novopolotsk) covered the demonstrations. Youtube actively relayed video clips of the events.
Not only did the government censor online protests, but it also used the Web to intimidate demonstrators: for example, the Interior Ministry – who created its Twitter account (@mvd_by) in April 2011, later followed by the Minsk Police Department (@GUVD_Minsk) – did not hesitate to tweet warning messages during the demonstrations: “To all persons going to the city square (...): you will have to answer for it.” In addition, the Belarus ISP BelTelecom redirected netizens trying to connect to Vkontakte to sites containing malware. From early May to early June 2011, at least seven websites were shut down at the request of the police, who had been granted new prerogatives by the Law of March 1, 2011.
The authorities pursued the offensive through legislation. Following Decree 60 of February 2010, Law 317-3, which took effect in Belarus on 8 January 2012, reaffirmed Internet surveillance and reinforced Net censorship in Belarus with a repressive arsenal. Already included among the main provisions of Decree 60 of February 2010 was the obligation of ISPs and cybercafés to collect Internet users’ personal data and conduct citizen surveillance, and the option for authorities to order the blocking of any site deemed “extremist” (a vague definition which regularly leads to the overblocking and closure of opposition websites). The new law provides sanctions against those who violate such provisions. Although non-commercial entities do not seem to be directly affected by the part of the law which requires Belarusian company websites to be hosted or duly registered in the country, the authorities may still draw up a list of banned sites controlled by state bodies.
In January 2012, the European Union strengthened its sanctions against certain Belarusian individuals and entities by subjecting them to travel restrictions and a potential assets freeze. The regime cannot resolve the country's problems by sinking into a repressive hysteria that would only exacerbate tensions. It is urgent for it to hear the international community’s appeals to reason and put an end to its aimless repression and war on information.