Reporters Without Borders (RSF) condemns the Belarusian government’s use of Internet cuts and news website blocking in an attempt to conceal reality and deprive the population of reliable, independent coverage of the country’s continuing protests and other developments.
As well as still arresting journalists, the authorities are increasingly clamping down on online information and organizing long-term Internet censorship as an alternative way to suppress independent reporting.
The information ministry has blocked more than 70 websites since 21 August, including the site of Radio Svaboda (the Belarusian service of Prague-based Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty), the site of Belsat (a TV channel run by exile journalists based in Warsaw), the Belarusian sites of The Village and Warsaw-based Euroradio, and the Belarusian version of the Russian alternative media outlet MediaZona.
The censors are also targeting electronic messaging services such as ProtonMail and VPNs. Users trying to connect keep on getting the same message: “Access is limited by decision of the Information Ministry under the law ‘on the media’ of the Republic of Belarus.”
However, the information ministry is not giving any reason for the blocking, which the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ) has condemned. The BAJ’s own site has been blocked since 9 August, the day that the disputed presidential election was held.
The Belarusian Internet has meanwhile been subject to disruptions for more than two weeks. Mobile Internet began being unstable when polling stations opened on 9 August and became completely inaccessible after the results were announced in the evening. For three days, specialized software such as TOR or VPNs were needed to access the Internet and circumvent the censorship of certain messaging services and websites.
The authorities denied being behind these incidents, claiming they were the result of a cyber-attack from abroad. Experts at RIPE-NCC, the regional Internet registry for Europe and the Middle East, nonetheless argued the Belarusian government was indeed responsible for the disruptions.
When the Internet was cut again for about an hour on the evening of 23 August, the national telecommunications company blamed the blackout on a technical problem – a disruption similar to the one reported on 17 August.
“Although less visible than arresting journalists, the measures taken to prevent access to online information are just as oppressive,” RSF deputy editor-in-chief Catherine Monnet said. “The Belarusian government’s efforts to stifle the truth and deprive the public of reliable and independent information are deplorable. The different channels of information, which are essential for both journalists and public in times of crisis, must be restored. A government can’t change the course of history by concealing the facts online.”
Ruled since 1994 by President Alexander Lukashenko, who has been reelected in the first round every five years, Belarus is ranked 153rd out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2020 World Press Freedom Index.