Belarus

Not Free
35
100
A Obstacles to Access 12 25
B Limits on Content 13 35
C Violations of User Rights 10 40
Last Year's Score & Status
36 100 Not Free
Scores are based on a scale of 0 (least free) to 100 (most free)

header1 Overview

President Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s government presided over an unprecedented crackdown on online journalists during the coverage period, which saw for the first time an ordinary netizen sentenced for activity on social media. Meanwhile, new amendments to the country’s Law on Mass Media greatly expanded the government’s legal authority to censor the web, while a related resolution sought to curtail user anonymity online. In a positive development, there were no internet disruptions during the coverage period.

Belarus is an authoritarian state in which elections are openly orchestrated and civil liberties are tightly restricted. While permitting limited displays of dissent as part of a drive to pursue better relations with the European Union (EU) and the United States, the government continued to exert control over the public sphere through restrictions on online media.

header2 Key Developments, June 1, 2018 – May 31, 2019

  • Amendments to the Law on Mass Media expanded the government’s ability to block and filter content, empowering it to block registered and unregistered online outlets, as well as social media platforms, without warning or judicial oversight (see B3).
  • During the lead-up to the European Games, held in Belarus in June 2019, the government threated to restrict access to websites that called for unsanctioned political protests during the event (see B8).
  • The so-called BelTA case saw 18 online journalists arrested and one tried on trumped-up charges in a move calculated to intimidate independent media (see C3).
  • In May 2019, a court sentenced a Belarusian citizen to three years of restricted freedom in a prison colony for allegedly using hate speech to incite ethnic hatred. The incident took place in a social media post from 2017 that was directed at Russians (see C3).
  • A decree restricted the space for anonymous expression online, while the government continued to enhance its electronic surveillance capabilities (see C4).

A Obstacles to Access

The Belarusian government continued to promote the country’s digital development, one of the few bright spots in an otherwise troubled economy. Investment in information and communications technology (ICT) infrastructure led to growth in internet penetration within the last year and access that is affordable for most of the population. Novel legislation is helping to propel Belarus to the forefront of technical innovation in Eastern Europe. However, the internet in Belarus remains subject to strict state control; the government owns and controls the backbone connection to the international internet, and controls much of the ICT market. There is no independent regulator.

A1 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Do infrastructural limitations restrict access to the internet or the speed and quality of internet connections? 5.005 6.006

Generally, Belarusian internet users are well served by their country’s ICT infrastructure. Citizens’ access to the internet has increased in recent years, as the government has sought to promote economic growth by investing in Belarus’s ICT sector. The number of Belarusians going online continued to grow in 2018-2019,1 amounting to more than 79 percent of the population,2 or over 7 million people.3 In the 2018 Global Connectivity Index, which measures a broad spectrum of indicators for ICT infrastructure and digital transformation, Belarus advanced two positions compared to the year before, performing “above the global average.”4

As of 2017, Belarus had the highest fixed-broadband penetration rate and one of the highest mobile broadband penetration rates among Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) members.5 By 2018, there were 10.4 million total broadband internet subscribers in Belarus.6 According to 2018 International Telecommunications Union (ITU) data, Belarus is home to 33.9 fixed-broadband subscriptions and 86.3 mobile broadband subscriptions per every 100 inhabitants.7 In comparison with 2016, fixed broadband take-up did not significantly change, while mobile broadband take-up grew by over 20 percent.8 While most Belarusians still go online through desktop or laptop computers, traffic via mobile phones is rapidly growing.9

During the coverage period, the country’s average download and upload speeds for fixed broadband improved, but those for mobile internet stagnated.10 RFBenchmark, an organization that evaluates mobile service, found the speed and quality of 4G mobile broadband connections in Belarus to be “significantly weaker compared to other neighboring countries in Central and Eastern Europe.”11

The number of mobile telephone subscribers rose to more than 11.6 million (123 percent of the population) in 2018.12 The majority of these subscriptions include broadband (3G and 4G).13 The same year, approximately 5 million Belarusians were using mobile phones, of which 60 percent were smartphones.14 The country’s largest mobile operator, MTS, reported in mid-2017 that 85 percent of all new mobile sales were smartphones.15 Almost the entire country is covered by mobile cellular networks, including more than 98 percent of the territory and 99 percent of the population.16 LTE (long-term evolution) service, offered by mobile companies via Belarusian Cloud Technologies (beCloud), the country’s sole 4G infrastructure provider, is available to more than three quarters of the population.17 By late 2018, 4G service covered at least 180 urban and rural communities across the country, including Minsk and all regional cities.18 At the end of 2018, beCloud began testing 5G technology in Minsk.19

In the fixed-broadband market, GPON (gigabit passive optical network) fiber-optic technology continued to replace ADSL. The number of subscribers connected via GPON topped 2 million by late 2018.20

In Minsk, there is a network of over 100 public Wi-Fi hotspots.21 Free Wi-Fi is also available at railway stations around the country.22

A2 1.00-3.00 pts0-3 pts
Is access to the internet prohibitively expensive or beyond the reach of certain segments of the population for geographical, social, or other reasons? 2.002 3.003

Internet access in Belarus continued to be affordable. Accounting for devaluation and inflation, prices did not change significantly during the reporting period. For example, the cost of mobile internet access has increased by only 1.76 percent since 2017, on par with the 1.59 increase in all consumer prices from 2014-2018.1 Belarus ranked 43rd of 230 countries and territories in a survey by the British firm Cable of the cheapest mobile data.2 Belarusians spent between 6 and 7 percent of their total household income on ICT costs.3 The ITU has noted that Belarus’s developed infrastructure combined with its affordability “creates a favorable environment for new ICT-services and ICT-usage growth.”4

Some digital inequalities persist, but are they narrowing. While 83 percent of Belarusians residing in urban areas are internet users, just 68 percent of rural residents are.5 Furthermore, Minsk is far more connected than the rest of the country.6 The gender gap is also narrowing; in January 2019, 49.92 percent of internet users were male and 50.08 percent female.7

Although Belarus has two official languages—Belarusian and Russian—the overwhelming majority of citizens use Russian in daily life, and Russian-language news and information outlets, both domestic and foreign, dominate Belarus’s information space. Websites based in or tied to neighboring Russia strongly influence the Belarusian internet. However, this may be changing. In 2009, up to 94 percent of internet traffic from Belarus was directed to Russia-based web resources; by 2016, traffic to Russian resources and Western resources was almost equal.8 Recent research data indicates that news sites in Ukraine have become more popular among Belarusians.9

A3 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Does the government exercise technical or legal control over internet infrastructure for the purposes of restricting connectivity? 4.004 6.006

The government owns and controls the backbone connection to the international internet, and controls much of the ICT market. Authorities did not impose any permanent restrictions on ICT connectivity during the reporting period.

A part of Belarus’s “market socialist” economy, the ICT sector continues to be largely state-controlled. The state-owned Beltelecom and National Center for Traffic Exchange (NTEC) are the only entities permitted to handle connections with ISPs outside of Belarus. All commercial providers must purchase internet access from Beltelecom’s Belpak gateway. NTEC provides access to national traffic exchange points (peering). While the government does not limit the amount of bandwidth that providers can supply, the fact that ISPs depend on Beltelecom’s infrastructure allows the authorities to control speeds for the entire country.

While the 2002 Law on the State of Emergency does not mention the internet specifically, article 13 permits the limitation of freedom of the press and other mass media by presidential decree.1 The government has traditionally viewed websites as mass media. This interpretation was codified by the 2018 amendments to the Media Law (see B3).

Launched in 1994, the Belarusian domain zone .by, often called the “BYnet,” had more than 131,000 registered domain names as of May 2019.2 In 2014, the nonprofit Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) approved Belarus’s request for a Cyrillic domain, .бел (.bel) as an alternative national domain. As of May 2019, the .бел domain contained more than 14,800 registered names.3 In 2018, the BYnet grew faster than the world average, increasing overall by nearly 6,000 domain names.4 By law, all entities operating with .by and .бел domain names must use Belarusian hosting services (see C6).

A4 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Are there legal, regulatory, or economic obstacles that restrict the diversity of service providers? 1.001 6.006

While Belarus’s ICT sector is developing rapidly, it remains subject to strict state control.1 While fostering a robust digital economy has brought economic benefits and has become an important part of the government’s national strategy,2 authorities are also following the Chinese model of connecting citizens while seeking to tightly control online spaces.

Encouraging the digital economy has become an important part of Belarus’s national strategy.3 It has also become a way to decrease Belarus’s dependence on Russia. During the last decade, Belarus’s information technology (IT) industry has distinguished itself from other sectors of an economy that has alternated between crisis and stagnation. In 2010, the share of the ICT sector in Belarus's gross domestic product (GDP) was 2.6 percent; by 2018, it was 5.5 percent.4 It is the fastest-growing sector in the national economy in terms of investment inflows and exports.5

In February 2018, the government established the Digital Economy Development Council to coordinate state policy on the digital transformation of the economy and the development of information and communication technologies.6 In 2017, President Lukashenka signed a decree aiming to develop a competitive 21st-century digital economy. While mainly garnering attention for eliminating legal obstacles for mining, storing, buying, selling, or exchanging cryptocurrencies, the decree also seeks to create a more favorable business environment for IT companies.7

The Ministry of Communications has issued more than 340 licenses for ICT services; by the end of 2017, 146 companies possessed licenses to provide “data-transfer services.”8 There is competition between internet providers, but as much as 90 percent of the fixed-broadband market is controlled by the state-owned Beltelecom.9 Beltelecom periodically floods the market with underpriced packages to reduce competition from private operators.10 Google and other digital companies that generate significant online traffic also have preferential agreements with Beltelecom, allowing it to engage in predatory pricing.11

Belarus has three mobile service providers. The largest is MTS, a joint venture of the state-run Beltelecom and the Russian MobileTeleSystems. It had 5.5 million subscribers in 2018.12 A1 (formerly Velcom), which is a member of the Telekom Austria Group, has 4.9 million. BeST/Life, with 1.6 million subscribers, is owned by Turkcell and the State Property Committee of Belarus.13 Mobile providers are now offering services in the fixed-internet market; A1 is now the largest private provider of fixed internet. This trend could influence competition and possibly increase state control even further, given the government’s stakes in MTS and BeST/Life.14

A5 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do national regulatory bodies that oversee service providers and digital technology fail to operate in a free, fair, and independent manner? 0.000 4.004

There is no independent regulator overseeing ICTs in Belarus. There is strong state regulation of and involvement in the ICT and media markets. The Ministry of Communications founded Beltelecom in 1995 and continues to regulate the company. In addition, the Presidential Administration’s Operations and Analysis Center (OAC),1 which was initially a subdivision of the State Security Committee (KGB), has the authority to oversee ISPs, set standards for information security, conduct online surveillance, and manage Belarus’s top-level domains. Other governmental bodies with authority over this sector include the State Telecommunications Inspectorate, the State Control Committee, the KGB, and the Prosecutor General’s Office.

In November 2017, Lukashenka established the Interagency Committee on Security in the Information Space to assess “the intense buildup of dangerous trends in the global and national information space.”2 The interior minister, defense minister, and chairman of the KGB, among others, all are members of the committee.

  • 1. The OAC is “a state body that regulates the activities of the security of information containing state secrets of the Republic of Belarus and other information protected by legislation." Viktor Lukashenka, the president’s son and head of the Presidential Security Service, noted that the OAC is one of the “most serious and critical security services” in Belarus. The OAC works with the Ministry of Communications to limit access to websites. “Head of OAC Paulyuchenka: Blocking websites is impossible, you can only restrict access to them,” Nasha Niva, April 23, 2018, https://nn.by/?c=ar&i=208496. For the first ever interview with OAC head Paulyuchenka, see “The Network Needs Protection” [in Russian], Sovietskaya Belarussia-Belarus Segodnya, April 23, 2018, https://www.sb.by/articles/set-nuzhdaetsya-v-zashchite.html
  • 2. “Lukashenka did not include Davydko in the commission on information security, but there is Marzalyuk” [in Belarusian], Nasha Niva, November 20, 2018, https://nn.by/?c=ar&i=200736

B Limits on Content

Amendments to the Media Law that came into effect in December 2018 further restricted online media and increased censorship, as did a new regulation mandating the identification of commentators on webpages. The government continued to block key online news sources. Nevertheless, Belarusian civil society pushed back against these growing restrictions through the greater use of social media and innovative public engagement campaigns. Russian propaganda and disinformation grew significantly during a period of increasing political and economic discord between the two governments. A new Information Security Concept emphasized that the authorities are determined to control more tightly internal flows of critical information as well as those directed from Russia.

B1 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Does the state block or filter, or compel service providers to block or filter, internet content? 3.003 6.006

The Belarusian government continued to block websites during the reporting period, including one major opposition news source, and other political sites. Social media platforms are freely available, though some individual groups and pages have been targeted for blocking.

From 2016 to 2018, the Belarusian government blocked more than 500 of what the Ministry of Information calls “information resources.”1 In 2018 alone, the Belarusian government blocked more than 175 websites,2 and since the beginning of 2019, the Ministry of Information has blocked more than 240 sites. However, in most cases, these were not political actions, as the websites were related to the distribution of drugs.3 The government also continued to block online resources under the Media Law. Pursuant to this legislation, it blocked six websites in January 2019 for distributing “extremist materials;” in June 2018, it blocked two websites and seven social media groups on Vkontakte and Facebook for the same reason.4

Since January 2018, the government has blocked Charter 97, one of Belarus’s most popular independent news and information websites.5 This Poland-based site, which is linked to the Belarusian political opposition,6 was restricted for spreading “extremist” content and other information that could harm Belarusian interests under Article 38 of the Media Law.7 In October 2018, the European Parliament passed a resolution on the deterioration of media freedom in Belarus that declared the blocking of Charter 97 “unacceptable.”8

Belarus Partisan, another independent online news portal, has been blocked since December 2017 under Article 511 of the Law on Mass Media.9 Currently, the outlet’s .org domain is blocked, although its .by domain is accessible.10 Belarusian authorities have previously claimed that if a site that violates Belarusian law is hosted abroad, the only measure the government can apply is to block it altogether. If the website is hosted in Belarus under the .by domain, then it is a Belarusian legal entity and other measures such as warnings or fines can be applied in case of violations.

In May 2018, the Ministry of Information blocked the website of Legalize Belarus (Legalize.by), a civic movement that opposes the Belarusian government’s alleged “inhumane and ineffective drug policy” and spreading of “propaganda regarding marijuana use.” The group moved its website to another domain, LegalizeBelarus.org, to keep it accessible. However, this site was also blocked. After numerous appeals, the government finally unblocked, LegalizeBelarus.org in July 2018, though Legalize.by remains blocked.11

The Belarusian government continued to target anarchists, who have long opposed the Lukashenka government and are active off- and online.12 A Belarusian anarchist group, Anarchist Black Cross Belarus, reported that five anarchist websites were blocked in 2018—including their own,13 which remained unavailable in Belarus at the end of the coverage period.

Tor and VPN services remained somewhat available during the reporting period.14 While Tor is banned and often blocked in Belarus, it is sometimes accessible.

State companies and organizations that employ up to 70 percent of the country’s workers reportedly use internet filters.15

The Belarusian government continued to employ basic techniques such as IP filtering and disabling domain name system (DNS) records to block websites. The authorities do not appear to perform regular or automated monitoring of the accessibility of banned websites, and it generally takes several hours for a new IP address to be blocked. However, the government is reported to be in possession of equipment and software necessary for deep packet inspection (DPI).16

B2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do state or nonstate actors employ legal, administrative, or other means to force publishers, content hosts, or digital platforms to delete content? 1.001 4.004

The government issues warnings to pressure websites to take down politically sensitive content. In 2018, the Ministry of Information issued six content warnings to independent media, including three to websites, a significant decrease from the 17 issued in 2017.1 Two or more such warnings received within a year can lead to the closure of an outlet. The ministry also sometimes pressures websites to remove comments posted by users.

In 2018, neither Facebook nor Twitter received any content removal requests from the Belarusian government, according to their respective transparency reports.2 However, Google received two such requests during the same period. One related to alleged defamation and the other to “national security.”3

In November 2018, following complaints from Belarusian state television about copyright infringement, YouTube removed most of the videos of the popular Belarusian political vlogger Nexta.4 He often uses videos taken from state television, commenting on and ridiculing them on his channel, which has more than 230,000 subscribers. Nexta claimed that he was abiding by the principle of fair use but, after repeated complaints from the Belarusian state broadcaster, YouTube warned him that his channel could be deleted. The blogger was able to successfully challenge one complaint.5 He is still in the appeal process with YouTube. As of May 2019, his YouTube channel and videos remained accessible. In order not to lose his following if YouTube blocked him, Nexta launched a Telegram channel in summer 2018. The number of Nexta’s followers on Telegram reached 86,000, the highest in Belarus, by the end of May 2019.6 Five of the top ten most popular Telegram channels in Belarus are operated by opposition bloggers.7

B3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do restrictions on the internet and digital content lack transparency, proportionality to the stated aims, or an independent appeals process? 0.000 4.004

The Belarusian government’s internet restrictions are opaque, disproportionate to stated aims, often invoked arbitrarily, and lack an independent appeals process. For example, Article 38 of the Law on Mass Media (see below) is broadly interpreted, does not require a legal process to institute blocking, and offers no avenue for appeals.

New amendments to the law that came into effect on December 1, 2018, expand the Ministry of Information’s ability to block and filter content, empowering it to warn, suspend, block, and close registered and unregistered online outlets without warning or judicial oversight.1 These amendments also empower the ministry to block social media platforms, and to hold website owners liable for hosting content deemed false, defamatory, or harmful to the national interest.2 Owners can also be liable for comments by unidentified persons posted to their sites.

Under earlier amendments made to the Media Law in 2015, the Ministry of Information may issue warnings, suspend, and file closure suits against online outlets.3 Under Article 28, the ministry can block access to sites if two warnings have been issued within 12 months and also block sites without a warning for posts it deems illegal.4 The types of information considered illegal were expanded to include “information, the distribution of which can harm the national interests.”

A blacklist of banned websites, to which any government body may contribute, is compiled by the Ministry of Information and maintained by the Ministry of Communications. Only government agencies and ISPs have access to the blacklist, which must be reviewed daily. A website can be blocked by a provider within 24 hours, while it may take the Ministry of Information up to a month to restore access to it once all violations are corrected

According to Ruling No. 6/8 (circa 2015), which laid out the mechanisms and procedures for legally restricting access to websites, sites can be blocked if they contain information the government deems illegal.5 Websites also may be blocked if their owners fail to correct violations of the Media Law as required by the authorities. The directive allows not only state agencies but also any individual to propose the blocking of specific websites.

  • 1. “Amendments to the Law on Mass Media: registration of Internet publications, identification of commentators, blocking of social networks” [in Russian], Belarusian Association of Journalists, April 6, 2018, https://baj.by/be/content/popravki-v-zakon-o-smi-registraciya-internet-…
  • 2. “Legislative amendments further restrict media in Belarus, says OSCE media freedom representative,” OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Vienna, June 18, 2018, https://www.osce.org/representative-on-freedom-of-media/384786
  • 3. For a critical analysis of the amendments, see Andrei Bastunets, “Analysis of Amendments to Media Law,” BAJ, January 22, 2015, http://bit.ly/1Le32bb
  • 4. The updated subparagraph 1.3 of Article 38 specifies information illegal for distribution and reads as follows, “information aimed at the propaganda of war, extremist activity or containing calls for such activity, pornography, violence and cruelty, as well as other information, the distribution of which can harm national interests of the Republic of Belarus or banned by this Law, and other legislative acts of the Republic of Belarus.”
  • 5. Ruling of the Operational and Analytical Center and the Ministry of Communication and Informatization № 6/8 from February 19, 2015, [in Russian], http://bit.ly/1VWX32N. In May 2015, the Ministry of Information began warning websites, including a number of political and news sources, that they were allegedly violating the amended Media Law. The first official use of the amended Media Law took place on June 2015, when the lifestyle website KYKY.org was blocked by the Ministry for Information without warning for distributing content harmful to the country’s national interests.
B4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do online journalists, commentators, and ordinary users practice self-censorship? 1.001 4.004

Online self-censorship is widespread in Belarus.1 The fear of having one’s website blocked or otherwise restricted encourages self-censorship among editors, journalists, and website owners.2 Likewise, recent prosecutions of online journalists and social media users (see C3) along with complex new rules governing the registration and identification of commenters (see C4) may be contributing to a climate of self-censorship.

  • 1. A 2017 Council of Europe (COE) survey of 940 journalists from 47 COE member states and Belarus found high levels of self-censorship. “Journalists suffer violence, intimidation and self-censorship in Europe, says a Council of Europe study,” Press Release, Council of Europe, April 20, 2017, https://rm.coe.int/16807215ba
  • 2. Interview with TUT.by’s Yuri Zisser in Vladimir Volkvov, “The founder of TUT.by: There are no taboo subjects, but there are forbidden forms of speech” [in Russian], Digital.Report, November 19, 2016, https://digital.report/osnovatel-tut-by-zapretnyih-tem-net-no-est-zapre…. See also "The authorities want to force journalists into self-censorship – Bastunets," [in Belarusian] Svaboda, February 15, 2015, http://bit.ly/1Pxbntx and “Information Ministry starts blocking websites for criticism of authorities,” Belarus in Focus, June 6, 2015, http://belarusinfocus.info/p/6733
B5 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are online sources of information controlled or manipulated by the government or other powerful actors to advance a particular political interest? 2.002 4.004

The government manipulates the online landscape through intimidation of users, restrictive laws, state news outlets, trolls, and selective financial support for content producers. Russian-based or -affiliated outlets that disseminate disinformation and propaganda are also active in Belarus.

The government exerts pressure on independent publications, warning them not to report on certain topics or criticize the government1 and by selectively using oppressive laws, or explicit or implied threats to invoke them. In advance of parliamentary and presidential elections scheduled for November 2019 and 2020, respectively, the authorities sought to increase control over online sources of information. To this end, the government adopted a new Information Security Concept in March 2019, based around the goals of “information sovereignty” and “information neutrality,” and which prioritizes state control of the information space within the country’s borders. The concept likely entails a greater response to Russia’s increasingly aggressive disinformation and propaganda targeting the Lukashenka administration, in addition to tighter restrictions on domestic independent and opposition media.2 As one expert put it, the concept “is aimed at ensuring the information security of the authorities, not the people.”3 The government is working to develop an action plan for the concept.

In February 2018, President Lukashenka replaced the heads of the main state television, radio, and newspaper outlets, which also maintain important websites.4 The changes appeared to be a response to growing disinformation and propaganda from Russia,5 as well as the failure of state media outlets to compete effectively in terms of trust, content, and readership with independent media.6 In a related move, Lukashenka undertook a major reshuffling of the government in mid-2018, appointing a new head of the Ministry of Communications.7

The government controls all broadcast media and more than 600 news outlets and their websites. Since 2015, the government has been operating the Mass Media in Belarus portal, or BelSMI, which aggregates news and information from the websites of more than 250 local television and radio stations, and print newspapers. The website only includes state-controlled local media, and experts have criticized BelSMI for its one-sided content.8

State-run media outlets benefit from generous state support, and routinely manipulate information (see B6). In May 2019, Media IQ—which independently monitors Belarusian media’s compliance with professional journalistic standards—released an analysis of 5,064 news items published online by seven state and twelve independent media outlets. Using a methodology that includes six standards, it documented a notable increase in cases of manipulation, identifying 153 cases of propaganda and manipulation in April, compared to 14 in March. Every state outlet showed evidence of propaganda and manipulation. Eight out of 12 independent media also displayed some signs of information manipulation, but its incidence was generally small.9

Since the 2010–11 protests, trolls praising the government and denouncing the opposition have increased significantly on independent media websites. They were constantly present on popular and influential forums and social networks, frequently worked in teams, and immediately reacted to breaking developments.10 However, following the implementation of a new rule regarding commenters to identify themselves through their phone numbers (see C4), it appears that there are fewer trolls on websites. However, progovernment trolls continue to plague the social media pages of news outlets and other information sources, as do pro-Russian trolls.

A widespread cultural, historical, and religious affinity to Russia provides Russian media with considerable influence on the Belarusian population, making Belarus very susceptible to Kremlin propaganda. Belarusian experts stress that the worldview of the average Belarusian is formed by Moscow, not Minsk.11 Russian trolls increased their activity since the 2014 “Revolution of Dignity” in Ukraine, and Russia’s subsequent invasion of Ukrainian territory.12

Ryhor Astapenia, “How Russian culture and media shape Belarusian politics,” originally appearing in Belarus Digest and reprinted by UDF.by, February 7, 2014, https://udf.by/english/featured-stories/95344-how-russian-culture-and-m… Prior to 2019, Russian trolls on Belarusian websites and social media pages purportedly outnumbered progovernment trolls. The pro-Russian trolls not only attacked prodemocracy activists but also sought to influence viewers on Russian-Belarusian issues.13 However, since new rules requiring commenters to register, the number of Russian trolls appears to have declined (see C4). This is especially the case for websites that do not allow commenters to register with foreign phone numbers. Nevertheless, experts report that domestic actors are still being paid by the Kremlin to promote a pro-Russian viewpoints.14

For Belarusians, Russian mass media ranks second in terms of trust, behind Belarusian state media.15 However, a number of Russian outlets, including websites, are carrying out a vitriolic campaign against both state and nonstate actors in Belarus. In many ways, this resembles the Kremlin-led campaign organized against Western-leaning Ukraine. Russian sites accuse Lukashenka of being disloyal to Russia, too independent from the Kremlin, and pro-Western. Always critical of the Belarusian democratic opposition, Russian outlets now allege that the Belarusian government and its opponents have allied to promote “dangerous nationalism” and “Russophobia.”16 Nationalist Russian websites like Imperiya News, Regnum, and Sputnik i Pogrom have ratcheted up their campaign against Lukashenka’s “soft Belarusization.”17 The number of websites from Russia, as well as Russian-supported sites in Belarus, grew significantly from 2016 to 2018. Experts have noted a new phenomenon: a network of such websites operating in Belarus’s regions.18 Independent experts also noted the widespread presence of the Kremlin’s agenda in major Belarusian state media.19

B6 1.00-3.00 pts0-3 pts
Are there economic or regulatory constraints that negatively affect users’ ability to publish content online? 0.000 3.003

The government employs direct and indirect economic pressure to limit financial support for independent online media outlets, making it nearly impossible for these sites to be profitable.1 Forced to operate in semi-underground conditions and facing constant pressure, independent online media and political opposition sites are unable to monetize their growing audiences and popularity.

The 2018 amendments to the Media Law expanded the definition of traditional media to include online outlets, providing these outlets with the option to register with the state.2 Registration, while not compulsory, provides journalists official recognition, making it potentially easier for them to gain access to official events and supposedly giving them immunity from arrest when covering unauthorized demonstrations. However, to apply for registration, outlets must have an official office in Belarus, legal status, and an editor-in-chief with at least five years of experience. These requirements cost time, effort, and money. Perhaps as a result, only four outlets had applied for registration by January 2019.3

A November 2018 rule requiring commenters to register with their phone numbers (see C4) imposed additional costs on website owners by forcing them to develop or purchase specialized software needed to identify commenters and increase storage space store their personal data.4

Internet advertising in Belarus grew by a double-digit percentage in 2018. Depending on the parameters of the calculations, the total value of the online advertising market ranged from $15.2 million to $68 million.5 Internet advertising is the fastest growing segment of the total media advertising market in Belarus.6 In fact, its growth rate is the highest in Europe, though its volume is the lowest.7 However, for structural or political reasons, most independent online outlets do not benefit significantly from this growth.

During the reporting period, foreign donor support for Belarusian civil society organizations, including independent online outlets, continued to decline.8 Restrictive amendments to the Law on Public Associations and the Criminal Code that were passed secretly in 2011 included an administrative penalty against nonstate organizations receiving foreign funding “in violation of law.”9 The 2018 amendments to the Media Law restricted foreign ownership of media outlets, including online media outlets, to 20 percent.

Favorable connections to the Belarus government are necessary for online media outlets to flourish. The authorities manipulate online content through significant financial support to progovernment media outlets. In 2019, the government significantly increased its support to state media to over $70 million, up from $59 million in 2018 and $50 million in 2017.10 These funds are used to “collect, prepare and disseminate state orders on official information.”11

The government has also retaliated financially against hosting providers. For example, in November 2018, the President’s Operational and Analytical Center excluded Hoster.by—the largest private provider of hosting and cloud solutions as well as a technical administrator of the .by and .бел domains—from the list of authorized hosting providers to the state institutions. Host.by is owned by Yuri Zisser, the owner of TUT.by, which experienced government repression during the reporting period (see C3). In a Facebook post, Zisser wrote that while Hoster.by did not have many state clients and its financial losses would not be significant, the goal of the decision was to intimidate his staff and him personally.12

Journalists who are not formally employed by media outlets are not allowed to work without state accreditation, exposing online journalists and freelancers to legal sanctions (see C3).13

B7 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Does the online information landscape lack diversity? 2.002 4.004

Despite the challenging media environment and growing repression, the information landscape in Belarus remains diverse. While there are less than 30 independent print journals and newspapers in Belarus covering socioeconomic and political issues,1 there are many more independent news and information websites. In fact, the country’s online information landscape is dominated by independent news media. The great majority of the 50 most popular news websites are either independent or opposition-run.2

According to research by the Academy of Sciences, the internet is the primary source of information for the majority of Belarusian users. Half of respondents rely on it for information on politics, economics, and finance. Social networks serve as a source of news for 40 percent of the respondents. Based on website page views and social media followers, Belarusians rely on internet sources more than television, radio, and print media. At the same time, they trust social networks and messengers more than Belarusian and Russian news portals. Interest in the official websites of government agencies and state institutions is extremely low.3

Belarusian use of social media platforms continues to grow. According to Hootsuite, Belarus has 3.8 million active social media users, a penetration rate of 40 percent.4 Social media amplifies the reach of independent news media.5 More than 42 percent of Belarusians get news and information from social media and blogs.6 The subscriber counts of some popular independent blogs rival the circulations of many independent and state newspapers; these blogs also attract more viewers than some state television news programs. As independent vlogger Nexta put it, "the modest voice of the state media is definitely drowning amid free information from the internet." He noted that, while the circulation of leading state-controlled print newspaper Sovetskaya Byelorussia is only 400,000 copies, some vlogs (mostly on YouTube) draw millions of views.7

Belarusian civil society groups are also using social media more effectively in promoting themselves and their work. The number of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) with more than 10,000 social media subscribers grew from 15 in 2017 to 17 in 2018.8

One potentially countervailing trend is Russia’s strong influence on Belarusian internet users. Several of the most popular websites in Belarus are Russian. The Russian news aggregators Yandex and Mail.ru play a significant agenda-setting role for more than 30 percent of Belarusian internet users.9 The most popular social media platforms in Belarus are the Russian Vkontakte and Odnoklassniki.10 The audience of each of these in Belarus is more than twice that of Facebook.11 The combined Belarusian audience of the websites of Russian television channels indicate that they are also quite popular among Belarusian internet users.12

Given the government’s increasing control over the internet, Belarusians are using proxy servers and other methods to circumvent censorship and surveillance. During the reporting period, there were more than 4,000 Tor users connecting directly, and about 1,500 Tor users connecting via bridges, figures similar to the previous year. However, there was a dramatic jump in direct users in spring 2019. Belarusians are among the most active Tor users.13

B8 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Do conditions impede users’ ability to mobilize, form communities, and campaign, particularly on political and social issues? 4.004 6.006

For Belarusians, the internet—especially social networks, messengers, crowdfunding platforms, and online petitions—has grown into the main tool for advancing civic and political activism on a daily basis. This is in contrast to the past, when it was mainly used to mobilize citizens only during times of social and political unrest, such as elections, opposition holidays, and protests.1 Today, citizens have access to and actively use a wide range of digital tools to disseminate information, create communities, and organize civic campaigns, which often bring about tangible change. For example, protests in the city of Brest over a planned battery factory, which were organized online and live-streamed by bloggers, prompted authorities to suspend the factory’s construction.2 The government does not restrict individuals’ use of social media and messengers but increasingly prosecutes and penalizes online activists (see C3). However, a May 2019 presidential decree did empower the government to block internet resources calling for protests during the summer 2019 European Games, which were held in Minsk in June.3

In the coverage period, gender rights and feminism became mainstream topics due to two online campaigns. In October 2018, President Lukashenko harshly criticized and blocked a long-awaited law on domestic violence, labeling it “foolishness taken from the West.”4 That same day, two female activists responded by establishing the invitation-only “March, Baby!” (“Маршируй, детка!”) group on Facebook. The group counted almost 2,000 members in less than two days; later, more than 100 people came together to form an offline advocacy group.5 The activists also created an online petition calling for the law’s adoption, which over 3,400 people have signed.6 Earlier, in August 2018, following the arrest of several female editors and journalists from independent online outlets in the “BelTA case” (see C3), a male journalist from the leading state-run newspaper used sexist language in a Facebook post to disparage the women, writing, “maybe they are quite pretty ladies and very pleasant and comfortable at home.” The remark sparked a response, organized around the hashtag #дамаудобнаявбыту (“Lady, comfortable in daily life”), which gave birth to a cultural project to fight gender stereotypes. A group of female artists produced creative infographics to promote discussion on the real situation regarding social and economic gender inequality in Belarus and a series of portraits to highlight famous female figures in Belarusian history.7 Both the “Lady, Comfortable in Daily Life” and “March, Baby!” campaigns went viral, both online and offline, raising public awareness on gender equality and feminism.

In recent years, crowdfunding has become a popular way for Belarusians to support civil society causes including social and political initiatives.8 It continued to grow in the reporting period. One of Belarus’s leading crowdfunding platforms, Talaka.org, reported that it collected 1 million rubles (approximately $480,000) for hundreds of civic projects in 2018.9 While some independent news sites occasionally utilize the process, crowdfunding has not become a major source of income for them. However, there is one significant crowdfunded online magazine, the flagship publication of the charity Imena (Names).10

C Violations of User Rights

The government stepped up its repressive activities against independent journalists and online news outlets, increasing its arrests and fining of freelancers working without accreditation, and persecution of journalists and activists disseminating “extremist materials” online. For the first time, an ordinary netizen was sentenced for activity on social media.

C1 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Do the constitution or other laws fail to protect rights such as freedom of expression, access to information, and press freedom, including on the internet, and are they enforced by a judiciary that lacks independence? 1.001 6.006

While Belarusians’ rights to freedom of expression, access to information, and press freedom are guaranteed by the constitution, they are not respected in practice. The country has no independent judiciary to defend these freedoms.

Online journalists are not adequately protected by Belarusian law. In June 2018, the government passed long-anticipated amendments1 to the Law on Mass Media. The amendments tightened the government’s control over the internet after they went into effect on December 1, 2018. Under the changes, all online news and information sources are considered mass media and are subject to the restrictive law. If online outlets do not register as mass media, their reporters will not be accorded journalists’ rights and status. Unaccredited freelancers and journalists for foreign media outlets are not accorded journalists’ rights and status as a matter of course.2 Online outlets blocked by the government may lose their registration.

C2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are there laws that assign criminal penalties or civil liability for online activities? 1.001 4.004

Belarus’s Media Law was adopted in 2008 and amended in 2013, 2014, 2016, and 2018. It includes a variety of repressive measures designed to stifle critical voices online.1 The newest amendments to the Law of Mass Media provide for the administrative blocking of social media and closing of online media without a legal decision (see B3).2

The government often uses alleged violations of the Administrative Code and the Criminal Code to repress online journalists and activists. These include reporting on “unsanctioned demonstrations” (Article 15 of the Law on Mass Events), disseminating pornographic or extremist materials (Article 17.11 of the Administrative Code), and insulting public figures (Article 189 of the Criminal Code).

C3 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Are individuals penalized for online activities? 2.002 6.006

The increased persecution of online journalists was the major story of the coverage period. In June 2018, the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Belarus noted that independent media workers continue to be the targets of systematic harassment.1 While there was a decrease in politically motivated criminal prosecutions during the reporting period, falling from 40 in 2017 to 18 in 2018, a greater proportion of them, three quarters (14) involved journalists, all of whom work online.2 The Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ) reported that 31 journalists were detained in 2018, fewer than the 101 during the year before.3 There were 26 searches of journalists’ and bloggers’ apartments and offices. The repression continued into 2019.

Notably, in August 2018, 18 journalists, including 11 from the independent online news outlets BelaPAN and TUT.by, were detained on charges of “unauthorized access to computer information causing significant harm.”4 The offices of BelaPAN and TUT.by were also searched. The authorities accused the journalists of illegally accessing the state-run wire service, BelTA.5 According to RFE/RL, 14 of the journalists were released after paying administrative fines, while one journalist, TUT.by editor-in-chief Marina Zolotova, faced an additional charge, “official inaction.”6 Her case went to trial, and she was subsequently fined the equivalent of $3,825.7

During the reporting period, the Belarusian authorities continued targeting freelance journalists, including those reporting online, with administrative fines for reporting without the required government accreditation under Article 22.9 of the Administrative Code.8 Despite local and international criticism, this practice increased in 2018, totaling 118 cases and over $50,000 in fines; both were the highest numbers on record. The total in fines was more than the total of the previous four years combined.9 A number of reporters have been charged multiple times. Ales Liauchuk, a freelancer for the satellite and online television station Belsat in Poland, was fined five times in 2018 and five more times from January to April 2019.10 His colleague, camerawoman, and wife, Milana Kharytonava, was fined nine times over the last two years. Their reporting is linked to the Brest case (see below).11 The Belarusian Association of Journalists has condemned the government’s persecution of freelancers. It has pointed out that the legal provision under which the freelancers are being charged applies only to media organizations, not to individual journalists, and that the prosecution of freelancers violates Belarus’s constitutional and international obligations.12

The past year saw an unprecedented campaign against social media users and bloggers,13 using a range of legal justifications, including the restrictive media and assembly laws.14 In March 2018, bloggers Sergei Pyatrukhin and Alexander Kabanau were prosecuted for filming environmental protests against the construction of a Brest-based battery factory.15 The court ruled that their sharing of videos on Facebook and YouTube constituted the “illegal production and (or) distribution of media products.”16 As the campaign against the factory continued, the two bloggers were repeatedly detained for organizing, participating in, and reporting on the protests. In February 2019, criminal charges were brought against both bloggers, one being accused of insulting police and the other of misappropriating funds.17 In April 2019, Pyatrukhin was found guilty of insulting police under Articles 188 and 189 of the Criminal Code; he was fined the equivalent of $9,000.18 The criminal charges Kabanau were later dropped.19

In 2018, the government also stepped up its persecution of journalists and activists by accusing them of disseminating extremist materials online under Article 130 of the Criminal Code for inciting ethnic, religious, and racial hatred. In 2018, several bloggers were fined for allegedly disseminating extremist materials.20 In November, the leader of the popular (and previously banned) rock band Dzieciuki was fined for inciting extremism after posting videos from an anarchist march in Brest on his Vkontakte page.21

Ordinary internet users are falling victim to Article 130 of the Criminal Code. On May 23, 2019, the Minsk City Court sentenced a Belarusian citizen to three years of restricted freedom in a prison colony for allegedly using hate speech to incite ethnic hatred. The incident took place in a social media post in October 2017 that was directed at Russians. The post was two lines of text and resulted in 80 pages of analysis by government experts. According to experts, there were only 10 cases prosecuted under this article in recent years, and this is the first resulting in a prison term.22

C4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Does the government place restrictions on anonymous communication or encryption? 1.001 4.004

During the reporting period, the government increased restrictions on anonymous communication. Under the 2018 amendments to the Law of Mass Media, anyone posting materials and comments online must identify themselves to the owner(s) of the websites on which they are posting.

On November 26, 2018, the government published Resolution 850,1 explaining and detailing the procedure for the prior identification of commenters on any Belarusian internet site.2 Under this procedure, a would-be commenter is first warned that they cannot post any information prohibited under Belarusian law. The website owner then creates an account for the user, activating it by sending a code via SMS to the user’s mobile device, thus establishing the user’s identification. Only one account per outlet can be created per mobile phone number. Website owners must store the personal data of registered users (including name, gender, date and place of birth, mobile phone number, email, and IP address) on servers physically located in Belarus and for the duration of the user agreement or at least one year following the activation of the agreement. However, the user has a right to terminate a user agreement with a website at any time.3 This procedure is mandated by the 2018 amendments to the Media Law.

Due to Belarus’s already restrictive media legislation, the identity of every commentator could already be established easily via IP-address, but not all users were aware of or concerned about this. The new regulation made the practice more public and exposed. Experts and publishers of independent online media believe that the regulation aims to discourage public discussions online.4

The regulation was published only five days before the 2018 amendments came into force. Website owners did not have sufficient time to adjust their commentary services to the new requirements.5 As a result, the majority of websites temporarily switched off their comments. By January 2019, most independent websites had reintroduced commentary options with preliminary registration. Monitoring of the leading independent online media indicates that the number of comments has fallen significantly. The publisher of a popular digital lifestyle publication noted that the number of its comments in February 2019 had decreased 10 times compared to February 2018. Only in March 2019 did the number of comments under an article on the leading Belarusian news and information website Nasha Niva (NN.by) exceed 100 for the first time after the introduction of the registration system.6

The impact of the new regulation on independent media with sociopolitical content is still unclear. Whether or to what extent commentators will be discouraged by the fear of being identified or deterred by the more complex, several-step registration system that requires extra time and effort remains unknown.7 Some experts conclude that commentators will migrate to social networks and public discourse will continue, but on external platforms. Some digital publishers and editors believe that commentators will become comfortable with the new system and, in time, will return to interacting with their favorite websites.

The Belarusian authorities can interpret Resolution 850 and other legal provisions to include social media. However, they do not have the legal or technical capacity to enforce identification via mobile phone for Belarusian users with foreign companies such as Facebook or Vkontakte. According to this regulation, the government can fully or partially block any internet resource that violates the law.8

Through a system known as Passport, the Ministry of Interior links mobile service subscribers to their real-world identities.9

Belarus has blocked the use of VPNs and Tor since 2015, though they sometimes remain accessible in practice.10 Under Resolution 218 (1997) of the Council of Ministers, the import and export of cryptography is prohibited without a license from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or the State Center for Information Security of the Security Council.11

The use of public Wi-Fi hotspots is regulated by authentication via mobile telephone number.12

C5 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Does state surveillance of internet activities infringe on users’ right to privacy? 2.002 6.006

Belarus employs systematic, sophisticated surveillance techniques to monitor its citizens and control critical expression online. Legislation allows the government to undertake wide-ranging surveillance at its discretion, and it does not require independent judicial authorization or oversight. Surveillance is believed to be omnipresent in Belarus. Activists and journalists reportedly fear that their offices are bugged, their phone calls listened to, their locations tracked, and their online communications at risk of being hacked.1

These fears were confirmed in 2018, during the BelTA investigation and trial of Marina Zolotova, editor in chief of TUT.by (see C3). An audio record of a telephone conversation between Zolotova and a TUT.by journalist, allegedly confirming the illegal use of BelTa materials, was submitted by prosecutors and publicized in state media outlets. However, the conversation actually took place in March 2018, at least one month before BelTA had appealed to the police regarding the infringement. Moreover, evidence of the conversation was published the next day after the raid in August 2018. It remains unclear which agency and on what grounds was it monitoring the TUT.by editor’s phone months before the case was launched.2

The Belarusian government interferes with internet freedom by monitoring email and internet chat rooms; it likely tracks opposition activists’ emails and other web-based communications. The Belarusian authorities collect and obtain personal information on independent journalists during raids and by confiscating computer equipment.

In May 2017, after a series of mass demonstrations,3 President Lukashenka signed Decree No. 187, “On the Republican Public Security Monitoring System,” creating a centralized real-time video monitoring system.4 The data collected by this system is available to the KGB, the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the Ministry for Emergency Situations, the Presidential Security Service, and the President's Operational Analytical Center.5 The State Border and Customs Committees could also be provided this data. The government has allocated up to $100 million for the system.6

In 2019, Danwatch and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) reported that the EU had provided surveillance equipment worth more than $2 million to the State Border Committee.7 This took place in spite of an EU ban on the export of equipment that may be used for internal political repression.

Chinese, Russian, US, and Israeli companies have also furnished the Belarusian government with advanced surveillance hardware and software. Huawei has been supplying video surveillance systems to the Lukashenko government since 2011. In 2014, Huawei’s local subsidiary, Bel Huawei Technologies, launched two research labs for “‘intellectual remote surveillance systems.” Through the labs, Huawei provides training for Belarusian specialists in the Ministry of Communications, Beltelecom, and other state organizations.8 In 2015, Beltelecom contracted a Chinese company to upgrade its website-blocking and traffic-monitoring capabilities.9 The Ministry of the Interior also works with Huawei,10 which in 2018 proposed that the Belarusian government deploy its “integrated police systems” similar to those that the Chinese government is using.11

Since 2010, the Belarusian government has been utilizing the Russian-developed System of Operative Investigative Measures (SORM),12 which provides the authorities with direct, automated access to communications data from landline telephone networks, mobile service providers, and ISPs.13

Since much of Belarus’s internet traffic passes through Russia, which also employs SORM, it is also presumably spied on by that country’s security services, which maintain close relations with their Belarusian counterparts. The Belarusian government also uses Semantic Archive, a software package developed in Russia that monitors open source data such as blogs, news outlets, and social media.14 Meanwhile, America’s Grayshift and several Israeli companies have supplied the authorities with tools for hacking into locked mobile devices.15

Belarus has also developed a domestic capacity to produce surveillance tools. The Belarusian company Synesis is a leading producer of intelligent video surveillance systems and analytics. Synesis’s video surveillance platform Kiprod links thousands of CCTV cameras in Belarus and other CIS countries.16

In Belarus, there is no judicial or independent oversight over electronic surveillance. The resulting lack of transparency makes it difficult to assess the state’s full surveillance capabilities.

Belarus’s legislation on data protection is not in line with international standards. The government released the draft of a new law on protecting personal data in 2018.17 In March 2019, it submitted the draft law18 to Parliament, which provisionally adopted it in June.19 The law must pass a second reading, which is not yet scheduled, and would come into effect one year after its adoption.

C6 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Are service providers and other technology companies required to aid the government in monitoring the communications of their users? 0.000 6.006

All telecommunications operators are required to install surveillance equipment, making it possible for the government to monitor traffic in real-time and obtain related metadata and data—such as users’ browsing history, including domain names and IP addresses visited—without judicial oversight. As of 2016, all ISPs must retain information about their customers’ browsing history for one year.1 Companies are also required to preserve identifying data regarding their customers’ devices and internet activities for at least five years and to turn over this information at the government’s request.2 According to Amnesty International, though, identifying data may be preserved for up to 10 years.3

Pursuant to Resolution 850, website owners are now required to store the personal data of all registered commenters.

Since 2007, internet cafés are required to log each user’s browsing history, keep that log for one year, and inform law enforcement bodies of suspected legal violations.4 Internet cafés also must photograph or film users.5 Hotels, restaurants, and other entities are obliged to register guests before providing them with wireless access, whether free or paid.6

Websites on the .by and .бел domains must be physically hosted within the territory on Belarus.7

C7 1.00-5.00 pts0-5 pts
Are individuals subject to extralegal intimidation or physical violence by state authorities or any other actor in retribution for their online activities? 2.002 5.005

The government stepped up its campaign of intimidation against online journalists, bloggers, and activists during the reporting period. The greater repression was mainly due to the country’s increasingly precarious international position between the West and Russia, and general elections scheduled for 2019 and 2020.1

In June 2018, police raided the apartment of Ales Lipai, the founder and head of BelaPAN, Belarus’s leading independent news agency, and Беларуские новости (Belarusian News), the country’s first online newspaper, and arrested him on tax evasion charges stemming from income received from abroad in 2016–172

http://spring96.org/en/news/90100 Although Lipai acknowledged that he had violated the law and paid back taxes (along with a fine), the investigation continued. Lipai died suddenly on August 23, 2018; the criminal case was dropped the following month. While already sick, his colleagues attributed his untimely death to stress induced by the investigation.3

In August 2018, police raided multiple independent news outlets4

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/08/world/europe/belarus-journalists-det… and the homes of journalists as part of the BelTA case (see C3). The authorities arbitrarily detained 18 editors and journalists, including from TUT.by, BelaPAN, and Deutsche Welle. The government claimed that the media workers had illegally accessed online information from the state news agency BelTA.5 The raids and detentions were illegal, because the charges brought against the journalists did not correspond to the crime for which they were accused.6 Following international pressure, the charges were dropped against all the media workers except the editor in chief of TUT.by. Marina Zolotova was tried, found guilty under the Criminal Code, and punished with a draconian fine (see C3).

Since the arrests targeted senior editors and leading outlets—TUT.by is the country’s most popular internet portal—it seems clear that the authorities sought to intimidate independent online media. Zolotova’s trial was widely viewed as an attack against her personally and an attempt to remove her from her position as a leader of one of the most influential online media outlets.

In April 2019, police broke into the offices of the independent online television station Belsat TV for the ninth time,7 confiscating computers and other equipment.8 The raid may have been linked to a slander investigation related to an October 2018 investigative report on a corruption case, although police only referred to an unspecified “criminal case.”9 A few days after the raid, police returned the confiscated property.10 Since its launch in 2007, the station has been a thorn in the side of the Belarusian government, whose campaign against it has resulted in thousands of dollars in administrative fines, hundreds of days in jail for Belsat employees, and at least 11 beatings.11 After being fined at least 14 times and repeatedly beaten, one Belsat journalist, Kastus Zhukouski, chose to leave Belarus in January 2019.12

On May 17, 2018, the British Embassy in Minsk flew a rainbow flag in recognition of the International Day against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia (IDAHOT). In response, the Belarusian Ministry of the Interior’s website issued a statement declaring that the LBGT+ community, same-sex relationships, and the struggle for LGBT+ rights are “fake.” Interior Minister Igor Shunevich defended the post, using a series of antigay slurs. These actions resulted in an online petition calling for his resignation, a viral social media campaign, and an offline campaign over the summer of 2018 that led to LGBT+ activists displaying portraits of Shunevich at gay pride marches around the world, spurring many selfies.13

http://www.postpravdamagazine.com/minsk-most-fearless-queer-activist-vi… On IDAHOT in May 2019, the British Embassy again flew a rainbow flag, and the ministry’s site responded with the message, "The position of the Ministry of Internal Affairs remains unchanged." It was later updated, stating "We are for genuine things, and they shall not pass," the slogan that accompanied the denunciation the year before.14 In June 2019, though, President Lukashenka removed Shunevich from his position. A February 2018 report by Article 19 found that hate speech, discrimination, and hostility against LGBT+ people in Belarus are widespread online.15

Online hate speech was not confined to the Belarusian government. During the reporting period, extreme nationalist and chauvinist Russian websites and Russian-supported websites in Belarus frequently used rhetoric that undermined and distorted the history of Belarus and questioned the existence of a Belarusian ethnic group and language. These websites also employed hate speech against different groups of patriotic or prodemocratic Belarusians, including independent journalists and bloggers.16

C8 1.00-3.00 pts0-3 pts
Are websites, governmental and private entities, service providers, or individual users subject to widespread hacking and other forms of cyberattack? 1.001 3.003

Technical attacks are not pervasive in Belarus, but during the reporting period, the social media accounts and websites of top state officials and institutions were breached by hackers. In December 2018, the website of the National Art Museum was hacked, and its content was replaced with that of a virtual casino.1 In June 2018, the Twitter profile of Maxim Ryzhenkova, the deputy head of the presidential administration, was hacked and made to post a fake apology to his Russian colleagues for “organized actions against the Russian Federation in the field of information security.”2 A day later, the Facebook profile of the Investigative Committee was hacked and made to post a fake document detailing the resignation of a powerful bureaucrat “according to the expectations” of Russia.3 Both fake posts provoked a wave of anti-Belarusian activity from Russian trolls. Experts believe that they originated in Russia.4

In March 2019, Nasha Niva (NN.by), a leading independent news website, reported that an unknown actors had tried to gain entry into the social media accounts of its editors and reporters. The outlet established that the attempts were made from an IP address in Belarus and, in one case, used a cloned SIM card.5

During the reporting period, the authorities reportedly created fake pages on social media in order to intimidate and incriminate activists, including anarchists. These pages published pictures and other private information obtained by the police during raids. They also published extremist materials (as bait) and provocative statements aimed at sowing division among dissidents.6

On Belarus

See all data, scores & information on this country or territory.

See More
  • Global Freedom Score

    19 100 not free
  • Internet Freedom Score

    38 100 not free
  • Freedom in the World Status

    Not Free
  • Networks Restricted

    No
  • Websites Blocked

    Yes
  • Pro-government Commentators

    Yes
  • Users Arrested

    Yes