Belarus

Not Free
31
100
A Obstacles to Access 10 25
B Limits on Content 14 35
C Violations of User Rights 7 40
Last Year's Score & Status
38 100 Not Free
Scores are based on a scale of 0 (least free) to 100 (most free)

header1 Overview

Internet freedom declined dramatically in Belarus as the government responded to a mass prodemocracy movement—which emerged in the run-up to the 2020 presidential election, and grew dramatically following the poll’s blatant falsification—with an unprecedented campaign of repression against Belarusian online journalists, activists, and internet users. The government arrested more than 500 journalists, media workers, bloggers, and online activists and beat and imprisoned scores. Dozens consequently fled the country. Amendments to the country’s laws on media and countering extremism further restricted freedom of expression online. The scale of the crackdown, particularly on independent online journalism and the use of social media and internet messaging services, affirmed that authorities view online activity as a primary driver of civic unrest. Nevertheless, the number, audience, activities, and influence of independent news sources, critical online voices, and digital activists grew dramatically.

Belarus is a consolidated authoritarian state ruled by Alyaksandr Lukashenka in which elections are openly orchestrated, and civil liberties are tightly restricted. The country’s overall human rights situation has declined precipitously as the government repressed nationwide protests. Since August 2020, the authorities have arrested more than 30,500 Belarusian citizens and launched some 3,000 criminal cases against them. The Viasna Human Rights Center, a Belarusian civil society group, recognized 629 political prisoners in the country as of mid-August 2021, after the report’s coverage period.

header2 Key Developments, June 1, 2020 - May 31, 2021

  • On August 9, 2020, election day, the Belarusian government initiated a nationwide shutdown of the internet that lasted for 61 hours. Internet shutdowns continued to take place afterward, particularly during the mass prodemocracy protests that took place on Sundays (see A3).
  • Authorities took additional action to limit access to information during the election period and ensuing protests, including by blocking political and civil society websites, forcing content critical of the government to be removed, and labeling certain Telegram channels as “extremist” (see B1, B2, and B3).
  • May 2021 amendments to the Media Law placed even more stringent restrictions on the free flow of information, including by banning live, on-the-scene reporting from newsworthy events, expanding the number of state officials and bodies that can block access to online material, and establishing broader grounds for the rejection or revocation of journalists’ accreditation (see B3).
  • The country’s online information landscape became more diverse, as new sources and content-distribution channels emerged. Citizens increased their use of messengers, particularly Telegram, and social media, especially YouTube, to expand the scope and reach of the country’s online information landscape (see B7 and B8).
  • The government arrested hundreds of journalists, media workers, bloggers, and ordinary users during and following the August 2020 elections and accompanied protests. Many of those in detention faced physical violence and torture. By the end of 2020, virtually all the country’s critical bloggers were either in prison or had fled the country (see C3 and C7).
  • The government monitored the social media activity of activists and journalists, as well as their conversations in messaging applications throughout the coverage period (see C5).
  • In May 2021, President Lukashenka ordered a Ryanair flight traveling from Greece to Lithuania diverted to Minsk, where authorities arrested Raman Pratasevich, a co-founder and editor in chief of Nexta, Belarus’s most popular Telegram channel. He later appeared in a video in which he confessed to organizing antigovernment protests; his supporters said the marks on his face visible in the video indicated that he had been beaten (see C3 and C7).

A Obstacles to Access

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

Users in Belarus benefit from the country’s well-developed information and communications technology (ICT) infrastructure. Access to the internet has increased in recent years, as the government has sought to foster economic growth and garner international prestige by promoting the ICT sector.1 According to official statistics, more than 85 percent of the population was online by early 2021.2 In October 2020, Gemius, a Polish research and technology company, found that Belarus had 5.3 million “real users,” which it defines as users who have viewed at least one web page in the past year.3 The country scored well in recent international indexes that assessed the robustness of its ICT sector.4

Belarus maintains one of the highest fixed- and mobile-broadband penetration rates in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). According to official statistics, by the end of the coverage period, the number of users accessing the internet via these connections reached 3.3 and 8.9 million, respectively, out of the country’s approximately 9.4 million people.5

During the coverage period, the average speeds for mobile- and fixed-broadband connections rose slightly, according to Ookla.6 However, speeds fell in the aftermath of the August 2020 protests, when the government throttled and shut down the internet (see A3).7 While overall speeds in Belarus are among the fastest in the CIS, they are among the slowest in Europe.8

According to official statistics, the number of mobile phone subscriptions was about 11.7 million (125 percent of the population) by April 2021.9 Of these, 64 percent utilize mobile internet.10

Officially, “cellular telecommunications services” cover almost 99 percent of the country.11 Fourth-generation (4G) long-term evolution (LTE) services, offered by mobile operators via the state-run Belarusian Cloud Technologies (BeCloud), the country’s sole 4G infrastructure provider, reached almost 43 percent of the country’s territory and 92 percent of the population as of April 2021.12 BeCloud and two of Belarus’s mobile providers began testing fifth-generation (5G) networks in 2020;13 however, Ookla’s tests found that in 2020, the country continues to rely heavily on 2G and 3G connections.14

Among fixed-broadband connections, gigabit passive optical network (GPON) fiber-optic technology continues to replace older digital subscriber line (DSL) technology. Belarus is among Europe’s leaders in terms of penetration of household fiber-optic communication lines.15 The number of GPON subscribers topped 2.7 million in early 2021.16

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 remains affordable. In its most recent data, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) found broadband to be affordable for at least 90 percent of the population, ranking Belarus 46th of 188 countries in terms of the affordability of mobile broadband subscriptions, with 1.5 GB of mobile data worth .74 percent of the gross national income (GNI) per capita, and 22nd of 178 economies for fixed-broadband subscriptions, with 5 GB of broadband data totalling .91 percent of GNI per capita. Prices were also among the cheapest in the CIS.1 Additionally, an Internet Accessibility Index produced by Broadband Choices, a service that allows users to compare mobile data plans, ranked Belarus 20th of 169 countries in terms of average internet speeds, the cost and affordability of home broadband packages, and the cost of mobile data in 2020.2 In January 2020, the government signed agreements with internet service providers (ISPs) that limit annual price increases to 4 percent.3

At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, ISPs observed a surge in demand. In response, some introduced zero-rating programs. For example, A1 offered many of its subscribers free basic internet connections between March 26 and August 31, 2020.4

Some digital inequalities persist, but they are narrowing. Nearly 87 percent of the urban population are internet users, but just 71 percent of rural residents are,5 and Minsk is much better connected than the rest of the country.6 In 2019, only about 36 percent of the population aged 60 or older used the internet;7 however, since the 2020 pandemic and protests, older people are reportedly seeking information online more often.8 According to the ITU, men and women in Belarus access the internet at roughly equal rates.9

In February 2020, the Council of Ministers approved a new state program for the “Digital Development of Belarus” from 2021–25, which includes updates to communication infrastructure.10

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? 2.002 6.006

Score Change: The score declined from 4 to 2 because the government restricted access to the internet during the fraudulent August 2020 election, and amidst massive prodemocracy protests in its aftermath.

The government—which maintains control of most online infrastructure—imposed heavy restrictions on connectivity during the coverage period as it sought to repress a massive prodemocracy movement that emerged in the run-up to the presidential election, and grew significantly after the fraudulent poll. Authorities initiated a nationwide internet shutdown on August 9, 2020, election day, which lasted until August 12.1 Internet access was restricted for approximately 61 hours, though people were able to communicate somewhat by accessing 2G networks.2 President Alyaksandr Lukashenka claimed that external actors were responsible for the internet outage;3 the state-run Computer Emergency Response Team and Beltelecom blamed distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks against the State Security Committee (KGB) and Ministry of Internal Affairs.4 Independent experts in Belarus and abroad determined that the government caused the shutdown.5

After the initial shutdown in August, more localized and intermittent internet outages took place throughout the coverage period, particularly during frequent Sunday protests. TUT.by calculated that from August 9 to November 29, Belarusians spent more than 102 hours without mobile internet.6 On Sunday, August 23, A1 acknowledged that “state bodies” had requested the reduction of 3G networks across Minsk.7

Ahead of the presidential election, internet connections were reportedly jammed at protests and rallies that took place in June 2020. While mobile operators and ISPs initially blamed technical issues for the slow speeds, experts claimed that the blockages were the product of government interference.8 The internet had previously been jammed in May and November of 2019.

Belarus’s ICT sector is largely state controlled. The government owns and controls the backbone connection to the international internet and regulates much of the ICT sector.9 Two state-run entities, the National Center for Traffic Exchange (NTEC) and Beltelecom, are permitted to handle connections with ISPs outside Belarus.10 The NTEC provides peering services through the BY-IX internet exchange point (IXP). Beltelecom, the country’s largest telecommunications company, owns and operates Belarus’ backbone network, upon which all other ISPs depend. Through these entities, the government can throttle or cut connections at will.

In May 2021, the government amended the Telecommunications Law to allow it to shut down or limit the operation of telecommunications networks and facilities in response to alleged threats to national security involving the internet.11 While the 2020 network disruptions lacked a legal basis, the new legislation provides the authorities with official grounds to implement internet shutdowns.

While the Law on States 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.12 Websites are considered mass media, according to 2018 amendments to the Media Law (see B3). Consequently, the government can block online resources “in the event of a threat to national security.”13

Launched in 1994, the Belarusian domain zone .by, colloquially called the “BYnet,” had more than 135,500 registered domain names by the end of May 2021.14 In 2020, the BYnet grew by less than 1 percent, more slowly than the European average15 and down significantly from 4 percent growth in 2019.16 While the number of domain names in Belarus increased in 2020, in line with the global trend of businesses moving online in response to the pandemic, that increase was reversed in August17 when the government cracked down on the protests: at the end of May 2021, the .бел domain had some 13,800 registered names, a decrease from 2020.18

In 2014, ICANN approved Belarus’s request for a Cyrillic domain, .бел (.bel), as an alternative national domain. In May 2020, the cost of registering a domain in Belarus increased by 30 percent, making the process more expensive than in the European Union (EU) or Russia.19 By law, all entities operating with .by and .бел domain names must use Belarusian hosting services (see C6).

In May 2021, the government raided the media company TUT.by and arrested key employees (see B1 and C3). Among the company’s holdings is Hoster.by, which hosts 60 percent of the domains on the BYnet. The authorities also arrested Hoster.by’s director. As of the end of May, Hoster.by continued to operate. The longer-term impact of this situation is unclear, but Hoster.by’s technical director warned of “potential risks” such as loss of competitiveness of domestic information technologies, problems with access to internet resources and email, and difficulties with the operation of the domain zone.20

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

Belarus’s ICT sector remains subject to strong state control.1 The authorities follow an authoritarian model of generating growth and connecting citizens while seeking to tightly control online spaces.2

Expanding the digital economy is an important part of Belarus’ national development strategy.3 In the last decade, Belarus’s information technology (IT) industry has distinguished itself from other sectors of an economy that have alternated between crisis and stagnation.4 In 2010, the share of the ICT sector in Belarus's GDP was 2.6 percent; by March 2021, it was 7.5 percent.5 By early 2021, the IT sector generated more than 20 percent of the country’s total exports of services.6 A number of tech companies and activists played a key role in the 2020–21 protests.

As of April 2021, 188 companies were providing telecom services in Belarus.7 However, the state-owned Beltelecom still commands 81 percent of the broadband market.8 In comparison, privately owned A1 had a 10 percent share of that market as of 2020.9 Google and other tech companies that generate significant online traffic have preferential agreements with Beltelecom, allowing it to engage in predatory pricing.10

Belarus has three mobile service providers. The largest is MTS, a joint venture of Beltelecom and Russia’s MobileTeleSystems. MTS had 5.7 million subscribers at the end of 2020. A1, which is a member of the Telekom Austria Group, had 4.9 million. BeST/Life, with 1.4 million subscribers, is owned by Turkcell, which controls 80 percent of the company, and the State Property Committee of Belarus.11

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 government founded Beltelecom in 1995 and continues to regulate the company. In addition, the Presidential Administration’s Operations and Analysis Center (OAC),1 which initially was a subdivision of the KGB, has the authority to oversee ISPs, set standards for information security, conduct online surveillance, and manage Belarus’s top-level domains. In 2019, a presidential decree provided the OAC with additional powers related to international cooperation on matters of information security and serving as a national center for responding to computer-related incidents.2 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 2017, Lukashenka established the Interagency Committee on Information Security to assess “the intense build-up of dangerous trends in the global and national information space.”3 The defense minister, internal affairs minister, and chair of the KGB, among others, serve on the committee.

While Belarus has a few nongovernmental ICT-related business groups, such as the Infopark Association and Confederation of Digital Business, they are supported by and cooperate closely with the government. The Belinfocom Association, an NGO, strives to represent and protect the interests of the privately owned ICT companies it counts as members. In the past, it has lobbied against Beltelecom’s monopoly, but it appears to have been less active in recent years.

  • 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." The OAC works with the Ministry of Communications to limit access to websites: “Кіраўнік ААЦ Паўлючэнка: Заблакаваць цалкам сайт немагчыма, можна толькі абмежаваць доступ [Head of OAC Paulyuchenka: Blocking websites is impossible, you can only restrict access to them],” Nasha Niva, April 23, 2018, https://web.archive.org/web/20190424160118/https://nn.by/?c=ar&i=208496. For the first ever interview with an OAC head, see: “Сеть нуждается в защите [The Network Needs Protection]”, Belarus Today, April 23, 2018, https://www.sb.by/articles/set-nuzhdaetsya-v-zashchite.html.
  • 2. “Беларускія сайты зрабілі адказнымі за тое, што на іх пішуць карыстальнікі [Belarusian sites made responsible for what users write on them],” Belarusian Association of Journalists, September 23, 2019, https://baj.by/be/analytics/belaruskiya-sayty-zrabili-adkaznymi-za-toe-….
  • 3. “Лукашэнка не ўключыў Давыдзьку ў камісію па інфармацыйнай бяспецы, затое ёсць Марзалюк [Lukashenka did not include Davydko in the commission on information security, but there is Marzalyuk],” Nasha Niva, November 20, 2018, https://nn.by/?c=ar&i=200736.

B Limits on Content

B1 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Does the state block or filter, or compel service providers to block or filter, internet content, particularly material that is protected by international human rights standards? 2.002 6.006

Score Change: The score declined from 3 to 2 because authorities blocked independent news outlets and websites linked to the political opposition during the mass prodemocracy protests that emerged ahead of the fraudulent 2020 election, and grew rapidly after.

Authorities have restricted access to political, civil society, and independent news websites around presidential elections since 2001,1 and, following the August 2020 presidential election and ensuing protests, mounted an unprecedented effort to block key news, human rights, civil society, and political opposition websites.2

Immediately after the election, more than 70 sites were blocked, including at least 25 media sites and 25 political sites.3 Approximately 50 key news and information websites remained blocked or had their access limited at the end of the coverage period.4 In May 2021, the Ministry of Information indicated that it had blocked more than 480 websites.5

Also in May 2021, the government blocked the domain portal of TUT.by, the country’s largest and most influential online news source (see B2 and C3). The Ministry of Information restricted access for alleged violations of the Media Law, including publishing materials of the unregistered Belarus Solidarity Foundation (BYSOL), which provides financial support to those who suffered repression at the hands of the Belarusian government.6 At the time of its blocking, TUT.by had 3.3 million daily users, in a country of about 9.5 million people.7 Earlier, in September 2020, the Ministry of Information had suspended TUT.by from October 1 to December 30, 2020.8 The decision came after the Ministry of Information filed a lawsuit in the Economic Court against TUT.by, claiming the publication violated articles 4 and 49 of the Media Law. In December 2020, a Belarusian court revoked TUT.by’s media license, but the outlet continued to publish.

In March 2021, opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya called on Belarusians to vote on the Голос (Voice) independent website on whether they supported negotiations with the government and the international community on the country’s future (see B8). The next day, the authorities blocked the site. According to Голос representatives, this was the sixth time the government had attempted to block the site since August 2020.9

In August 2020, during the post-election protests, the Наша Ніва (NN.by) website, the country’s most popular Belarusian-language online source, was blocked by the Ministry of Information after the Security Council identified eight articles that allegedly violated Belarusian law. The website immediately revised the content in question, but the site was unblocked only three months later, in November 2020.10 In July 2021, the government also raided the offices of NN.by and blocked their domain portal.11

In August 2020, the government blocked circumvention tools, including the proxy service Psiphon,12 but these tools and virtual private network (VPN) services remained somewhat available during the reporting period (see C4). For example, sites affiliated with the circumvention tool Psiphon were blocked in August, but users were still able to access the tool through mail autoresponders, mirror sites, and proxies after the block.13 While Tor is legally banned in Belarus, it is also occasionally accessible.14

Since January 2018, the government has blocked Charter 97, one of Belarus’s most popular independent news and information websites.15 The Poland-based website, which is linked to a part of the Belarusian political opposition,16 was originally restricted for spreading “extremist” content and other information that could ostensibly harm Belarusian interests under Article 38 of the Media Law.17

In Belarus, social media platforms are available, though some individual groups and pages have been targeted for blocking due to alleged “extremist” content (see B2). In 2020, during the postelection shutdown and the subsequent disruptions, social media platforms were inaccessible.

State offices, organizations, and companies—which employ more than half of the country’s workforce—reportedly use internet filters.18 For example, in 2020 some state bodies connected to the Office of the President reported being unable to access TUT.by and Onliner, the country’s most popular independent news and business websites, respectively.19

Tech experts believe the August 2020 internet shutdown was caused by the Belarusian government attempting to control communications via deep packet inspection (DPI) filtering, which caused a bottleneck in internet traffic (see A3).20 The state apparently used DPI technology supplied by the Canada-based Sandvine.21 In response, Sandvine canceled its contract with Belarus’s state-run NTEC, claiming that it had violated provisions that prohibit actions supporting or enabling the commission of human rights violations.22

In addition to its use of DPI technology, the government employs basic techniques such as IP (internet protocol) filtering and disabling domain name system (DNS) records to block websites. It also uses other commercial filtering technologies, including some produced in the United States, for this purpose.23 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.

Experts do not believe that the Lukashenka administration possesses the resources necessary to develop a Chinese-style “Great Firewall” through which it can exercise mase content controls through technological means.24 Rather, it employs—and in some ways was an inspiration for—the Russian model, in which the state uses repressive laws and intimidation of key ICT companies and civil society to control the information space. However, with the recent protests in mind, President Lukashenka called for greater regulation of Belarus’s IT sector, and to follow China’s example in “building a digital society.”25

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, particularly material that is protected by international human rights standards? 1.001 4.004

Score Change: The score declined from 2 to 1 because the government forced a number of prominent news sites to delete content and also banned references to Telegram channels the government labeled as “extremist.”

Ahead of the August 2020 election and during the ensuing protests, the government increased its attempts to force outlets to delete politically sensitive content. Although there is no law requiring websites to remove references to online sources alleged to be extremist, the government monitors and punishes websites when it finds such references, including references to Telegram channels that are deemed extremist. As the authorities regularly added more sites to the official list of extremist materials, editors scrubbed more of their content, leading to a dramatic increase in content deletion.

On August 8, a day before the election, the Ministry of Information demanded that NN.by delete a report about ballot stuffing during the early voting period. The website was given two hours to comply.1 Despite revising the content, the site was blocked until November 2020 (see B1). In July 2020, Babruysk.by, an independent local news website, received a written order from the head of the ideological department of the Babruysk city administration ordering it remove five videos related to the presidential election, and threatening the outlet with a lawsuit if it did not comply. The site’s editor refused to delete any content.2

The government sometimes issues orders or warnings to pressure websites publishing politically sensitive content. Two or more such warnings received within a year can lead to the closure of a media outlet. Prior to 2020, these orders and warnings had been rare. However, as the Belarusian Association of Journalists noted, the government often defaults to this form of pressure around presidential elections.3 During the coverage period, the authorities issued four content warnings against and withdrew the media license of TUT.by, the country’s most popular independent media outlet, which was eventually blocked and shut down (see B1 and C3).

The government sharply increased its use of antiextremism legislation to censor online content during the coverage period. By the end of May 2021, the Ministry of Information had issued 59 decisions that deemed a range of materials, including online audio, video, and text materials “extremist.” While some of the materials advocated racism or religious extremism, others focused on opposition politics; decisions affected, for example, the Telegram channels and logo of Nexta, the country’s most popular political blog, and the popular Telegram channel of blogger Anton Motolko.4 The number of government decisions on news, political opposition, and civil society materials deemed to be “extremist” grew significantly in 2020 and 2021.5

After labelling prodemocratic materials of Nexta and others as extremist in October 2020, the government banned online media from referring to them, as well as to other alleged extremist materials, and required outlets to exclude such materials—and in some cases even remove them retroactively—from their publications (see B3).6 At the end of the reporting period, the authorities also expanded the Law on Countering Extremism (see C2).

As of the end of 2020, Twitter and Facebook had received no content removal requests from the Belarusian government, according to their respective transparency reports.7 Google received six requests in 2020: one related to copyright, four to alleged defamation, and one related to national security. In response, Google removed two items, citing legal reasons.8 The Russian social media platforms VK.com and OK.ru are also popular in Belarus, but their parent companies do not release transparency reports.

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 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 Media Law is broadly interpreted, does not require a legal process to institute blocking, and offers no avenue for appeals.

In May 2021, the government amended the Media Law1 to further restrict freedom of information in Belarus. The legislation entered into force one month after its publication. The revised law bans live reports from events and the publication of unsanctioned public-opinion polls, as well as hyperlinks to materials prohibited by the government and mirror sites that host them. Further, more state officials and bodies, including prosecutors and the Interagency Committee on Information Security, can now block access to online media and sources that disseminate materials the government deems to be promoting “extremist” activities or harming national interests. The Ministry of Information can also order the closure of a media outlet without a court order. The legislation expands the government’s grounds for refusing to register media and revoking the accreditation of journalists for producing materials considered by the state to be “fake news,” defamatory, or illegal. The law seeks to minimize the impact of external sources of information in Belarus by banning media outlets founded by foreign legal entities or legal entities that include foreign participation.2

Previous amendments to the Media Law that came into effect in 2018 expanded 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.3 The amendments also let the ministry block social media platforms and hold website owners liable for hosting content deemed false, defamatory, or harmful to the national interest.4 Under 2015 amendments, the Ministry of Information may issue warnings, suspend, and file closure suits against online outlets.5 Under Article 38, the ministry can block access to websites if two warnings have been issued within 12 months and can block websites without a warning for posts deemed illegal, including for purportedly threatening national security.6

A list of banned websites, to which any government body may contribute, is compiled by the Ministry of Information and maintained by the Ministry of Communications.7 Only government agencies and ISPs have access to the list, which must be reviewed daily.8 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. The government also prevents online media from referencing materials deemed extremist, which include prodemocracy materials, and requires the retroactive removal of links to these materials (see B2).9

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.10 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.

B4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do online journalists, commentators, and ordinary users practice self-censorship? 2.002 4.004

Online self-censorship has been widespread in Belarus and this trend continued as the government escalated its attacks on critics throughout the coverage period.1 The state threatened and harassed its critics, but bloggers, commentators, and journalists continued to highlight the government’s repressive practices.

However, following the election, the sharp escalation in government repression against journalists—including unprecedented physical violence and the blocking of websites—likely increased self-censorship among editors, reporters, and website owners. The Belarusian Association of Journalists and ARTICLE 19 noted that the “assault on media freedom is now so critical that many journalists are forced into self-censorship or to even flee the country” (See B1, C3, and C7).2 Impunity for violence against media workers also begets greater self-censorship in Belarus.3

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

Beset by a deadly pandemic, mass protests over the fraudulent election, ongoing protests and sanctions from the United States, EU, and numerous European countries, the Lukashenka government increased its manipulation of the information landscape by intimidating journalists and bloggers, providing selective financial support for online content producers and utilizing trolls and bots. Russian-based or -affiliated actors that disseminate Kremlin-sponsored disinformation and propaganda also intensified their activities in Belarus. Long before the events of 2020, the government regularly exerted pressure on the independent press, warning outlets and journalists not to report on certain topics or criticize those in power and selectively using oppressive laws or implied threats to invoke these laws.1

In May 2020, at the start of the presidential election campaign, government pressure on independent media intensified. President Lukashenka threatened that Telegram and other information channels, which he claimed were hyping fake news about COVID-19, would be identified and “put in their place.”2 In June 2020, the government banned media outlets from conducting online polls about support for the president, as earlier online polls had shown his popularity at 3 percent while support for alternative candidates had skyrocketed.3

During the August presidential campaign, independent monitoring by the Belarusian Association of Journalists found that the coverage by state media, including online sources, was neither balanced nor fair. Amidst the postelection protests, workers who had resigned from state media confirmed earlier reports of state manipulation and censorship of information.4 State outlets presented the opposition as a “destructive force” comprised of “criminals” who were plotting a coup.5 The vilification of the independent media has since continued, as authorities attempt to portray online independent media as helping to organize and drive the protests.6 Many journalists have been convicted of “organizing public events aimed at disrupting civil order” (see C3).

Since the election, state-run media have also continued to distort the information landscape with pervasive propaganda and manipulation.7 For example, state media has disseminated a conspiracy theory that blames the protests on “Western” powers fomenting a “color revolution” to destroy Belarus and threaten the Russian government, which has backed Lukashenka throughout the year’s events. This strategy seeks to devalue the protests by denying their internal political focus and demonizing their leaders and participants.8

In the aftermath of the election and during the protests, the government intensified its attacks against independent online media. In official discourse, there are regular references to an “information war” against the state.9 State media regularly direct hate speech and slander against leading independent websites.10

The state directly controls all broadcast and most print media, totalling more than 600 mass media outlets and their websites.11 Since 2015, the authorities have been operating the Mass Media in Belarus portal, or BelSMI, which aggregates news and information from the websites of more than 250 state-controlled local television stations, radio stations, and print newspapers.12 In early 2020, the government announced plans to launch a new national news television channel and accompanying website that would be a “symbiosis of television and the internet.”13

Trolls comment on independent media websites and critical social media pages, praising the government and denouncing the opposition. Nevertheless, their general impact does not seem to be significant.14 The implementation of a 2018 rule requiring commenters to identify themselves may have led to fewer trolls on mainstream media sites. However, the rule does not apply to social media platforms, where they remain quite active.15

Experts noted an increase in the number and activities of domestic Belarusian trolls with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and the presidential campaign. Concerning the former, the trolls defended the government’s performance; concerning the latter, they used hate speech to attack alternative candidates and their supporters. An analysis of comments and likes on the YouTube channels of two leading state television channels found that before the August election the comment function had been switched off, and the number of likes had been minimal. After the election, the number of views remained low, but both channels had switched comments back on; the amount of likes increased significantly and all of the comments lauded the government.16

Prior to the election, a group of presumably state-employed bloggers, termed “antibloggers” by one observer, emerged to quickly write blog posts defending local officials and state businesses in response to other bloggers’ critiques about mismanagement and corruption.17

The authorities also mobilize state officials to carry out manipulation activities. A former ideology employee of a town administration revealed that on August 9, 2020, she and her colleagues received a letter from the regional ideological department containing instructions to dislike, write negative comments about, and file complaints against a film by Nexta on his YouTube channel. They were required to submit a report upon completion of the task.18

Progovernment online sources also employ bots in competing with their independent counterparts. Investigative reporters tracked one of the most popular progovernment Telegram channels and noticed that it regularly purchased bot activity to boost its subscribers and secure a place in the Top 20 ranking. However, measured by the average reach of a post, the channel ranked only 46th. Earlier, there were reports that state officials were required to subscribe to the channel.19

Trolls sponsored by the Russian government also remain active in the Belarusian online information space. During the coverage period, they sought to discredit increased activism of Belarusian society over the government’s botched response to the COVID-19 pandemic and falsification of the presidential election. In September and October 2020, Facebook took down several networks linked to Russia’s security services for violating its ban on foreign interference that included a focus on Belarus, among other countries.20 Anarchist activists have also reported that police have created fake social media accounts to monitor their activities and to harass them.21

Russian mainstream media is also active online in Belarus. A widespread cultural, historical, and religious affinity between the two countries provides Russian media with considerable influence on the Belarusian population, including through Kremlin propaganda, which is both disseminated directly and is broadly present in Belarusian state media.22 Belarusian experts stress that the worldview of many Belarusians is most influenced by Moscow rather than Minsk or European democracies.23

In addition to the traditional “Russian World” line that denies a separate Belarusian history and culture, many Russian media outlets, websites, and social media groups were promoting two other vitriolic campaigns in Belarus. The first accuses President Lukashenka and his government of carrying out a “double-dealing” foreign policy that plays Russia on the one hand, and the United States and EU countries, on the other, against one another. This campaign tapered off in fall 2020 after the Russian government decided that support for a flawed Lukashenka regime was preferable to a pro-democratic and pro-western government. The second targets the Belarusian opposition, especially those who came to the fore around the August 2020 election—for example, by portraying Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and other democratic leaders and groups as puppets controlled by the West. As one expert has pointed out, the influence of this campaign is particularly pernicious because the Belarusian government is concurrently carrying out a similar campaign.24

In all, Kremlin-supported media outlets, social networks, and government-organized nongovernmental organizations (GONGOs)25 appear to be thriving inside Belarus.26 The number and activities of Russian-owned and supported news websites in the country increased significantly in recent years, including at the regional level.27 Some of these sites attract audiences comparable to those of regional state-owned online media.28 While the sites’ audiences are not large, their divisive content29 is amplified via social networks and messengers across Belarus.30 As Belarusians migrated to Telegram during the past year, so have Russia’s information operations.31

It is important to consider these developments in the context of media consumption habits in Belarus. A fall 2019 survey determined that Belarusians still trusted news from television (which is heavily influenced by Russian content) more than they did from the internet.32 In an earlier survey, Russian mass media ranked second in terms of trust, behind Belarusian state media.33 Studies released in 2020, however, indicated a shift. A September media survey by King’s College London and Sociolytics found that less than a third of respondents regularly watched Belarus’s four state-owned television stations. Instead, 75 percent declared that they get their news from online social media:34 the Belarusian government’s inept response to the COVID-19 epidemic and falsification of the presidential election appears to have led to a collapse in trust in state media. While this situation has boosted society’s trust in independent online media, it has also increased the influence of Russian media of all types as the Belarusian government’s severe repression of the country’s independent media is pushing citizens to consume more Russian media.35

B6 1.00-3.00 pts0-3 pts
Are there economic or regulatory constraints that negatively affect users’ ability to publish content online? 1.001 3.003

The COVID-19 pandemic and social unrest following the August presidential election have negatively affected Belarus’s already-suffering economy, further limiting the viability of online media. According to official statistics, gross domestic product (GDP) fell by about 1 percent. However, independent experts believe the situation is more dire.1 Foreign experts concur and expect little growth in 2021.2 As a result of these developments, the country’s independent news and information websites have become less financially viable.3

By the start of 2020, an actual media market had developed in Belarus. A year earlier, digital advertising had grown by over 20 percent, with the total market exceeding the value of television advertising for the first time. Digital advertising had become the fastest-growing segment of the media advertising market in Belarus.4 Benefiting from this, independent media had experienced better economic conditions. During the coverage period, however, this situation worsened. Accounting for inflation, online advertising fell by nearly 1 percent in real terms in 2020, compared to the previous year.5 Around the August election and protests, many large companies paused or reduced their online activities.6

During the coverage period, the government increased efforts to directly and indirectly limit financial support for independent online media, including by issuing a “recommendation” that companies do not advertise in nonstate media. In one instance, relating to bank advertising, participants in a meeting with the National Bank relayed that authorities asked members of the financial-services sector not to purchase advertisements on independent online outlets.7

Restrictive amendments to the Law on Public Associations and the criminal code that were passed secretly in 2011 bar organizations from receiving foreign funding without state approval.

The media market remains distorted by government subsidies to state-owned media, which are awarded so they may “collect, prepare and disseminate state orders on official information.”8 Most state outlets would not survive without this assistance. Public funding for state-run media increased sharply in 2020. In comparison to 2018, the 2020 budget for state media9 grew by more than 25 percent.10 The finance minister explained the increase by declaring that the government would boost the role of state media outlets in the online media environment.11 But even as it increased spending in 2020, the government during the coverage period appeared to be relying more on force and less on investment to restrict independent media. In 2021 the state plans to spend 156 Belarusian rubles ($62 million) compared to 2020 when it spent 164 million Belarusian rubles ($67 million).12

Generally, favorable connections to the government are necessary for nonstate online media outlets to succeed financially, and most independent media remain dependent on external funding.13 Forced to operate in semi-underground conditions and facing constant state pressure, independent media were unable monetize their growing popularity during this report’s coverage period, even as their audiences surged due to accurate coverage of the pandemic,14 presidential election, and protests.

Belarus has a long record of using arbitrary regulations regarding the accreditation of journalists to stifle media freedom, which it continued to do during the coverage period (see C1 and C3).15 Additionally, in October 2020, in response to EU sanctions, President Lukashenka cancelled the accreditation of all foreign journalists and the required them to reapply, in an apparent attempt to limit independent reporting on the protests (see C1 and C3).16

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

Despite worsening economic conditions and an unprecedented police crackdown on independent media, Belarus’s online information landscape remains diverse. Although there are no independent television or radio stations, and fewer than 20 independent print journals and newspapers covering political and socioeconomic issues,1 there are many independent news websites available on the BYnet. While the government has blocked some 50 independent websites, including key information sources, the country’s online information landscape has become more diverse as more sources have emerged, and more content-distribution channels are being used to expand its scope and reach in reaction to the crackdown.

The country’s online information landscape remains dominated by independent, rather than state-run, news websites; the majority of the most popular news sites are either independent or opposition-run.2 Although some independent media sites have been blocked since the August protests, they have diversified their social media and messenger dissemination channels, especially through Telegram, and boosted their readership. At the same time, state online news sources have not experienced similar growth.3

The galvanizing issues of the COVID-19 pandemic and the presidential election and ongoing protests have dramatically increased the popularity and significance of independent online sources of information. A March–April 2020 poll indicated that, for perhaps the first time, more Belarusians were seeking information (in this case about COVID-19) from the internet (81 percent) and social networks (73 percent) than from television (55 percent).4 A second survey conducted by MASMI, a market-research firm, indicated an even more drastic shift toward online sources.5 The government’s rigging of the August presidential election and propaganda around the protests appears to have resulted in a collapse of public trust in state media. Meanwhile, a January 2021 Chatham House poll found that 50 percent of the Belarusian public trusted nonstate media, the most of all institutions; in contrast, state media ranked almost at the bottom, at 16 percent.6

The number of Belarusians utilizing social media platforms remained stable during the coverage period. According to We Are Social and Hootsuite, Belarus has 3.9 million active social media users, a penetration rate of 41 percent.7 The top five most popular social networks are VK.com, Instagram, OK.ru, Facebook, and TikTok.8 The use of messaging apps is also popular. The most used are Viber, Telegram, WhatsApp, Skype, and Facebook Messenger; in 2020, Telegram use almost doubled compared to 2019.9

These tools are playing an ever more popular role in disseminating independent news, information, and commentary.10 One leading blogger suggests this is because the government has further tightened its control over traditional media. He believes that social media and messengers now play the same social role as “kitchen discussions” did in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR).11

In addition to disseminating independent news and information, social media channels are also becoming increasingly political. A recent Stanford University study found that Belarusian- and Russian-language Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter appear to tilt significantly toward pro-opposition outlets and accounts in Belarus.12

Telegram has become especially popular and politicized in this regard. In 2017, there were 100 channels, compared to 700 in 2019. By late 2020, there were at least 1,800 regularly updated Belarusian Telegram channels.13 The application first became an important organizing tool around the December 2019 protests against integration with Russia, and later, helped people access information about the COVID-19 pandemic as the government downplayed its severity.14 The application also played a key role in organizing and popularizing opposition campaigns in the run-up to the August election. Telegram use skyrocketed following the election because it remained partially accessible during the internet shutdown and subsequent outages—working more effectively via proxy servers, VPNs, and file-sharing services than other websites and social media channels.15 In August 2020, approximately 85 percent of protestors reported that they were using Telegram.16

By the end of May 2021, the top 15 most popular Telegram channels in Belarus were run by the political opposition, critical bloggers, and independent news and information outlets.17

Media analyst Wojciech Przybylski believes that the Belarusian Telegram community has become “a space of established information sovereignty where pro-Belarusian channels” that promote Belarusian language, culture, and independence dominate the national conversation.18

An increasing number of online media outlets also use YouTube, which ranks among the most popular internet sites accessed by Belarusians. As with Telegram, the top 30 most popular YouTube channels in Belarus are dominated by independent news outlets and opposition political sites; only two are state entities.19 One of them, BelTA, has promoted its YouTube channel by purchasing advertisements for confession videos it had uploaded of journalist and activist Raman Pratasevich and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega.20 The number of views of nonstate YouTube channels rivals the number of viewers of Belarus’ state television stations. The top 20 Twitter influencers in Belarus are also mostly independent media outlets and opposition political figures.21

Domestic and foreign news and information outlets in Russian, one of Belarus’s official languages, are influential. Four of the most popular websites in Belarus are Russian-owned.22 The Russian news aggregators Yandex and Mail.ru play a significant agenda-setting role for Belarusian internet users,23 as do the Russian social media platforms VK.com and OK.ru. Because Belarus has no geographic localization, even Google, Apple, and other western aggregators offer Belarusians news sources from Russia.24

Russian television channels active online in Belarus are popular among Belarusian netizens.25 One expert estimated that 30 percent of Belarusians only get their news from Russian sources.26 Another expert noted that Russian sources of information, both state and independent, became more influential in the coverage period because of the collapse in Belarusians’ trust in their own state media.27 However, a study found that Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) and Deutsche Welle tend to outperform Russian state media.28

Kremlin-backed groups in Russia use anonymous Telegram channels to spread disinformation and pro-integration sentiment in Belarus (see B5).29

In response to the government’s control over the internet, Belarusians utilize proxy servers and other methods to circumvent censorship and surveillance. With the onset of the protests, the use of Tor surged. During the coverage period, more than 1,900 Belarusians connected to Tor daily.30 At peak usage, nearly 10,000 connected daily via bridges, a dramatic increase over previous coverage periods.31 Due to the harsh crackdown, Belarus also became a world leader in the use of Psiphon.32

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

In recent years, the internet—especially social networks, messenger services, crowdfunding platforms, and online petitions—has been the main tool for advancing civic and political activism in Belarus. Citizens have access to and actively use a wide range of digital tools to disseminate information, create communities, and organize campaigns. This report’s coverage period was marked by the rapid growth of online political blogging and activism, as Belarusians used the internet to organize and engage with one another in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the August 2020 presidential election, and the subsequent prodemocratic protests.1

In 2020, or the first time, the internet played a major role in a Belarusian presidential election. A leading candidate, Siarhei Tsikhanouski, was a blogger, as were many members of his team. All opposition candidates actively used social media and messengers to communicate with the electorate. Some candidates used automation tools to coordinate volunteers who went out to collect signatures during that stage of the campaign. Video streams of election rallies by independent media and bloggers informed and mobilized the general public.

Later, IT professionals developed a sophisticated crowdsourcing platform, Голос (Voice), that helped expose wide-scale fraud during the August 9 election.2 While the government blocked the website, it failed to stop the effort to monitor voting because the platform used Telegram and other messengers to tabulate votes and disseminate results. Голос has also become a popular and powerful tool in assessing public opinion on crucial issues after the election. In March 2021, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya called for citizens to vote on Голос either for or against the launch of negotiations with the government to resolve the country’s ongoing political crisis. More than 750,000 Belarusians have done so, with a majority voting in favor of talks.3

In response to the government crackdown, Belarusians expanded their use of social media and specialized platforms to crowdfund financial and other support for thousands of repressed citizens. Although the authorities shut down domestic crowdfunding platforms prior to the elections, the campaigns were run from abroad. The largest initiative, BYSOL (Belarus Solidarity Foundation), collected more than $4.25 million dollars by the end of 2020.4 Dedicated funds were created to support fined and fired workers, cultural professionals, and independent journalists. Other forms of solidarity included an online service to send postcards to political prisoners, and chat bots and online consultations to provide psychological support to the repressed and their families.5

Telegram became the main information and mobilization tool during the post-election protests. In fall 2020, mass demonstrations were coordinated via Telegram channels. In 2021, Telegram is being used to organize local communities for solidarity and protest activities. Opposition political leaders, including those forced into exile, and opinion leaders rely on Telegram to connect with their constituencies. Independent media outlets are using Telegram to increase their audiences and evade blocking by the government. Telegram has also helped boost citizen journalism.6

C Violations of User Rights

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. The government passed amendments1 to the Media Law that tightened the government’s control over the internet in 2018. Under the changes, all online news and information sources are considered mass media and are subject to the law’s restrictive provisions. If online outlets do not register as mass media, their reporters will not be accorded journalists’ rights and status.

Since the beginning of the prodemocracy protests and government crackdown in August 2020, the Belarusian authorities have made no attempt to investigate the arbitrary detention of journalists or initiate criminal cases regarding journalists’ complaints about the violent actions of the police. Impunity for crimes against critical online voices has become the norm in post-election Belarus.2

Unaccredited freelancers and journalists for foreign media outlets are not accorded journalists’ rights and status as a matter of course,3 and in recent years it has become almost impossible for Belarusian freelancers to receive accreditation for working for foreign media outlets. Around the August 2020 election and ensuing protests, some 50 foreign journalists were denied accreditation or deported,4 including at least 17 journalists working for US and European outlets.5 In October 2020, as a response to EU sanctions, President Lukashenko announced the cancelling of accreditations of all foreign journalists and the requirement for them to reapply; only Russian reporters had their credentials renewed.

C2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are there laws that assign criminal penalties or civil liability for online activities, particularly those that are protected under international human rights standards? 1.001 4.004

A number of repressive laws assign criminal penalties for legitimate online activity. Independent journalism, civic activism, and ordinary conversation and debate among users can prompt criminal charges if critical of the authorities or perceived as such.

The 2008 Media Law has been amended on multiple occasions to add repressive measures that further stifle critical voices online (see B3).1 Among other provisions, it prohibits the dissemination of “fake news” on the internet that may harm state or public interests.2 The Administrative Code prescribes administrative liability for repeated violations of the Media Law.

In May 2021, the government amended the Law on Countering Extremism, which was previously amended in 2019.3 The new legislation targets those who “plan, organize, prepare, and commit encroachments on the independence, territorial integrity, sovereignty, the foundations of constitutional order, and public security.” The amendments punish the dissemination “of knowingly false information about the political, economic, social, military, or international situation of the Republic of Belarus;” insulting “a representative of the authorities in connection with the performance of his official duties;” or inciting of “various types of hatred”4 with up to six years in prison.5 The amendments also stipulate that those who threaten police can face up to seven years in prison. Since the protests started in 2020, the authorities have used anti-extremist legislation to remove content and target journalists and protesters (see B2 and C3).

In March 2021, the government enacted a revised Administrative Code.6 While it does not focus specifically on media, the new code eliminates warnings, institutes more stringent fines, and adds a new penalty of community service for “taking part in unauthorized mass events” (Article 24.23), an offense with which many online journalists have been charged.7

The government regularly uses alleged violations of different parts of the Administrative Code and the Criminal Code to repress online journalists and activists. These include reporting on “unsanctioned demonstrations” (Article 11 of the Law on Mass Events), disseminating “extremist” or pornographic materials (Articles 19.11 and 19.7 of the Administrative Code and Article 130 of the Criminal 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, particularly those that are protected under international human rights standards? 1.001 6.006

Score Change: The score declined from 2 to 1 due to mass arrests of journalists, bloggers, media workers, and figures linked to the political opposition due to their online activities.

Throughout the coverage period, the government further intensified its persecution of media workers, individuals linked to the opposition, administrators of popular Telegram channels, ordinary internet users, and anarchists for their online activities. Generally, authorities view critical bloggers as a dangerous and difficult-to-control source of information.

Notable repression of journalists accompanied the 2020 presidential campaign, election, and protests that followed. The Belarusian Association of Journalists reported that 480 journalists, bloggers, and media workers were detained by police in 2020, a dramatic increase from the 21 in 2019; the 2020 total was more than twice the number of the previous six years combined.1 Criminal prosecutions rose from 2 in 2019 to 15 in 2020,2 and 32 journalists and media workers remained in jail at the end of May 2021.3

In May 2021, government forces raided the Minsk and regional offices of TUT.by, the country’s most popular independent news source, and the residences of some of its journalists (see B1). They arrested at least 15 employees and associated figures and opened a criminal case against the company for gross tax evasion (Part 2 of Article 243 of the Criminal Code). Human rights groups noted that the Belarusian government has repeatedly used tax evasion as a pretext to repress critical voices and declared the 15 detainees to be political prisoners.4 After the coverage period, in July 2021, government forces also raided the offices of NN.by as well as the homes of the journalists (see B1).5

In May 2021, President Lukashenka ordered a Ryanair flight traveling from Greece to Lithuania diverted to Minsk and arrested Raman Pratasevich, the founder and former editor of Nexta, Belarus’s most popular Telegram channel (see C7).6 He later appeared in a video in which he confessed to organizing antigovernment protests; his supporters said the marks on his face visible in the video indicated that he had been beaten while in detention.7

In May 2021, five months after her arrest, Mia Mitkevich, a cultural manager, was sentenced to three years in prison under Article 130 of the Criminal Code (incitement of racial, national, religious or other social hostility or hatred) for three posts about the police on Vk.ru (see C3).

In February 2021, security forces raided the office of the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ) and the residences of its two deputy chairs, confiscating their personal electronic devices and cell phones. The organization’s office was sealed; its bank account blocked; and its computers, financial documents and official seal were seized. On the same day, 90 raids took place against other leading human rights organizations, journalists and activists. In March, BAJ chair Andrei Bastunets was interrogated several times by the Investigative Committee in regard to a criminal case. On March 16, the state unblocked BAJ’s bank account and returned its official seal, which is required for the BAJ to function legally.8

In January 2021, police arrested Andrei Aliaksandrau, a high-profile online media worker and journalist who has written for a number of leading domestic and foreign media organizations, and his partner, Iryna Zlobina. The authorities charged them with article 342 of the criminal code (organizing or preparing actions that grossly violate public order, or active participation in them) and article 243 of the Criminal Code (tax evasion). Aliaksandrau and Zlobina were accused of paying the fines of 250 arrested demonstrators on behalf of the “#BY_help civic campaign,” an independent crowdfunding platform (https://www.belarus97.pro/eng).9 The Belarusian human rights community recognized Aliaksandrau and Zlobina as political prisoners. In June 2021, the government added an additional charge of high treason under part 1 of article 356 of the criminal code, which carries a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison, against Aliaksandrau. The authorities allege that he took part in “betraying state secrets of the Republic of Belarus to a foreign state, international or foreign organization, or their representatives.” As of early September 2021, the charges against Aliaksandrau constituted the harshest persecution by the government against an online media worker.

In December 2020, police detained Siarhei Hardzievich, a journalist of the online media outlet Pershy Rehion. The authorities searched his apartment in Brest and consider him a suspect under Article 368 of the Criminal Code, which concerns insulting the President. He is currently under house arrest.10

In December 2020, the government arrested four staff of the Press Club Belarus, a network promoting the professional growth of the media sector and operating several important online projects, including the Press Under Pressure site. Founder and leader Yulia Slutskaya, program director Ala Sharko, financial director Sergei Olszewski and camera operator Piotr Slutski, Slutskaya’s son, were charged under Part 2 of Article 243 of the Criminal Code (grand tax evasion).11 Two others linked to the club were also detained; one of them, journalist Ksenia Lutskina, had earlier resigned from state television in protest against the falsified election and ensuing crackdown. She participated in the Club’s Media Accelerator program, which pairs independent media outlets with IT companies to stimulate innovation in the media sector. One expert suggested that the arrests were not only an attempt to halt the broad range of media activities carried out by the Club, but also an act of revenge against a former high-profile state journalist who had “betrayed the system.” The Belarusian human rights community recognized the five as political prisoners. In August 2021, all of the imprisoned Press Club activists, with the exception of Lutskina, were released from prison.

In November 2020, Katsiaryna Andreyeva and Daria Chultsova, journalists from the independent online television channel Belsat, were arrested while reporting live on a demonstration honoring Roman Bondarenko, an opposition activist who died in in police custody. Andreyeva and Chultsova were eventually charged under Article 342 of the criminal code (organizing actions that grossly violate public order). In February 2021, a court sentenced them to two years in prison for allegedly directing the protests.12 The Belarusian human rights community recognized them as political prisoners. In another case related to Bondarenko’s death, a court sentenced Katerina Borisevich, a reporter with TUT.by, to six months in jail on March 2, 2021, for “divulging medical secrets” that “posed a threat to public safety.” Borisevich’s publication of information from a medical report refuted government claims, including those made by Lukashenka himself, that Bondarenko had suffered fatal injuries in a drunken brawl rather than at the hands of the security services.13 Borisevich was released in May 2021.

In September 2020, Yahor Martsinovich, editor in chief of the NN.by portal, was arrested and charged under Article 188 of the Criminal Code for slandering a public official. His case is linked to an article in which an interviewee claimed that he had been beaten in a detention center by Alexander Barsukou, the deputy head of the Ministry of the Interior.14

In August 2020, Alexander Vasilevich, a co-founder of KYKY.org and The Village Belarus, was arrested on August 27. He later moved the news outlets’ operations outside of the country (see C7). 15

During the coverage period, the authorities continued targeting freelance journalists, including those active online, with fines under Article 23.5 (formerly 22.9) of the revised Administrative Code for reporting without the required government accreditation (see B6).16 In 2020, the government issued 13 fines for a total 12,663 rubles ($5,000)—less than the 44 fines ($21,000) in 2019.17 However, as of the end of May 2021, the authorities had already issued 26 fines.18 Alina Skrabunova, an independent journalist, earned 10 of them in one month for materials published on the Belsat internet television channel.19 Although the government detained more journalists overall during this coverage period, fewer were fined under Article 23.5/22.9 because more were charged with more serious administrative and criminal offenses.

The government also detained and deported foreign reporters (see C1). For example, in August 2020, Vasil Fiadosenka, a Reuters journalist, was detained along with eight journalists from BelaPAN, Current Time, RFE/RL, and TUT.by.20

In May 2020, as protests broke out amid the growing toll of the COVID-19 pandemic and the setting of the date of the presidential election for August 9, 2020, the government escalated its repression of individuals linked to the opposition. Most of the protests were led or inspired by Siarhei Tsikhanouski, a charismatic blogger who ran the YouTube channel Страна для жизни (Country for Living), an ironic reference to a Lukashenka propaganda slogan. The channel portrays the everyday frustrations of ordinary citizens living outside the capital. Although the authorities barred him from running for president on a technicality, his wife, Svetlana Tsikhanouskaya, registered as a candidate.21 As he collected signatures and conducted rallies for her around the country, Tsikhanouski was detained repeatedly and finally arrested on May 31, 2020, for alleged violence against a police officer.22

The incident, during which an older woman’s questioning of Tsikhanouski about his platform degenerated into a scuffle with police, was widely seen as a provocation organized by the government. In June 2020, the authorities searched the residences of Tsikhanouski and his family, allegedly finding 1.9 million rubles ($900,000) in undeclared cash, which they used as a pretext to prosecute him. The authorities also arrested nine members of Tsikhanouski’s campaign team, including bloggers. On June 9, the government charged Tsikhanouski and six others under Article 342 of the criminal code for “gross violation of public order.” It charged two other detainees under Articles 342 and 364 of the Criminal Code for “violence against a police officer.” Tsikhanouski remains in jail. Domestic and international human rights communities consider him a political prisoner.

Tsikhanouski’s arrest coincided with a new purge of critical bloggers, some directly linked to his campaign, in June 2020. Among those arrested were Dmitry Popov, the social media manager for Страна для жизни; blogger Uladzimir Tsyganovic, who ran the popular political YouTube channel MozgON (Brain On); Dmitry Kozlov, the creator of the Серый Кот (Gray Cat) YouTube channel;23 Alexander Kabanov, a leader of the long-running environmental protests in Brest and a popular blogger; and Sergei Piatrukhin, another leader of the Brest protests. All were charged under Article 342, among others.24 To protest the government’s long-term harassment and inhumane prison conditions, Piatrukhin attempted to slit his wrist.25 In May 2021, Kozlov was sentenced to five years in prison.26 In April, Kabanov and Piatrukhin were each sentenced in absentia to three years in prison.27

A second wave of arrests took place after the August election and ensuing protests. Mikola Dziadok, a Telegram blogger and anarchist, was arrested under Article 342 and reportedly tortured in November.28 Eduard Palchys, another Telegram blogger, was detained in late October and charged under Part 1 of Article 293 of the Criminal Code (organizing mass riots).29 Likewise, blogger Pavel Spiryn was detained in September 2020; in February he was sentenced to four and a half years in a penal colony under Article 130 of the Criminal Code for “intentional acts aimed at inciting hatred” against government officials. The charge was based on two political films, one dating back to 2019, which he had made and released on his YouTube channel.30 By the end of 2020, virtually all of the country’s critical bloggers were either in prison or had left the country.

In August 2020, the founder of the documentation automation services company PandaDoc, Mikita Mikado, launched an online initiative (Protect Belarus) that financially supported law enforcement officials who had chosen to resign rather than repress their fellow citizens. In response, the government raided PandaDoc’s Minsk office, arrested four employees, and opened a criminal case against them for alleged fraud.31 The authorities released the four in October after Mikado announced that he had ended the initiative. In February 2021, PandaDoc closed its Minsk office. Prior to the 2020 protests, Belarus’s ICT sector was developing rapidly, but during the coverage ICT companies suffered due to the government’s internet shutdown and crackdown.

Those overseeing politically and civically active channels on Telegram continued to suffer harsh government repression. In May 2021, Alexander Raentau, administrator of the Telegram channel Палігон (Polygon) was sentenced to five years in a maximum-security penal colony under Part 1 of Article 342 (organizing or actively participating in group activities that grossly violate public order) and Part 2 of Article 363 (resisting a police officer) of the criminal code.32 In June 2020, the authorities arrested Ihar Losik, administrator of the Telegram channel Беларусь головного мозга (Belarus of the Brain), under Article 342. After government added a new charge of “plotting riots” (Article 13, Part 2 of Article 293 of the Criminal Code), Losik undertook several hunger-strikes and slit his wrists in protest.33 He has yet to be tried, remains behind bars, and is recognized as a political prisoner.

The government also targeted small-scale Telegram communities covering Minsk’s districts, neighborhoods, and even single courtyards, which grew dramatically during the coverage period. On March 2, 2021, police detained more than 20 administrators of district Telegram channels.34 The authorities claim to have “exposed” more than 1,000 yard chats, identified the most radical, and promised to punish both the administrators and participants with up to 10 years in prison.35 As one expert put it, “the state started arresting popular administrators of Telegram channels because the authorities started to realize how much political influence they were having in Belarus. But they started to do this too late.”36

The Belarusian government often labels opposition political or independent information materials as “extremist” under Article 19.11 (previously 17.11) of the revised Administrative Code (see B2). In October 2020, a Belarusian court recognized Poland-based Nexta’s Telegram channels, the country’s most popular blogs, and the Nexta logo as “extremist.”37 As a result, government can prosecute any internet user who reposts or shares Nexta materials or uses videos and photos with the logo. In November, the government opened a criminal case against Nexta for organizing “mass riots” against the government.38 That same month, the KGB added Stsiapan Putsila, the creator of Nexta, and Raman Pratasevich, the platform’s former editor in chief who was later arrested, to a terrorist watch list.39

The authorities also prosecuted more than 20 defamation cases under Article 369 of the Criminal Code, which concerns insulting a public official, against ordinary internet users as well. The cases, which spanned the country, involved critical comments made via Telegram, YouTube, VK.com, and OK.ru. The sentences ranged from one and a half to five years of restricted freedom or prison.40 In addition to terms to be served, each convicted user must pay significant compensation (from $500 to $2,000) for “moral damage” to the “victims.”41

The government continued to target anarchists, who oppose the Lukashenka government and are active off- and online.42 In July 2020, Dzmitry Polienko was sentenced to 15 days under Article 23.34 of the Administrative Code, which prohibits calling for the organization or holding of an unsanctioned event. He encouraged a flash mob to form on balconies and bang pots and pans in the evening.43 In August, police raided the apartment of Mikola Dziadok, an anarchist blogger and Telegram channel administrator, and confiscated two computers and a phone. The search was conducted as part of a criminal case concerning Facebook posts.44

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

Several legal restrictions, apparently enacted in part to discourage online public criticism of authorities,1 discourage online communications in Belarus.

Under amendments to the Media Law, anyone posting materials and comments online must identify themselves to the owner(s) of the Belarusian websites on which they are posting. Resolution 850,2 issued in 2018,3 requires commentators to identify themselves via SMS. Only one account per outlet can be created per mobile phone number. Website owners must store personal data collected—including name, gender, date and place of birth, mobile phone number, email, and IP address—of registered users for one year.4

It remains unknown whether or to what extent commenters are discouraged by the fear of being identified or deterred by the cumbersome registration system.5 Some experts see commenters migrating to social media platforms. Digital publishers and editors believe that commenters are becoming comfortable with the new system and are returning to interacting with their preferred websites.

Through a system known as Passport, the Ministry of Interior links mobile-service subscribers to their real-world identities.6

Belarus has blocked the use of VPNs and Tor since 2015, though they remain accessible in practice.7 In August 2020, the government also blocked additional circumvention tools, including the proxy service Psiphon (see C4).8 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 Interagency Center for Information Security of the Security Council.9

The use of public Wi-Fi hotspots is regulated by authentication via mobile telephone number.10

  • 1. “Закон аб рэгістрацыі каментатараў негатыўна паўплывае на імідж краіны [Comment registration law will negatively affect the country’s image],” Racyja, April 14, 2019, https://www.racyja.com/hramadstva/paulyuk-bykouski-zakon-ab-registratsy/.
  • 2. “Об утверждении Положения о порядке предварительной идентификации пользователей интернет-ресурса, сетевого издания [On approval of the Regulations on the procedure for preliminary identification of users of an Internet resource, a network publication],” Council of Ministers, November 26, 2019, http://www.government.by/ru/content/8427.
  • 3. “Belarus Internet Users Will Have To Submit Phone Numbers To Comment Online,” BelarusFeed, November 27, 2018, https://belarusfeed.com/internet-users-belarus-phone-number-for-comments.
  • 4. “Совет министров утвердил порядок идентификации интернет-комментаторов в Беларуси [Council of Ministers approves the procedure for identifying Internet commentators in Belarus],” dev.com, November 26, 2018, https://dev.by/news/sovmin-commentators.
  • 5. “’Зьніклі мацюкі’. Што ў СМІ кажуць пра рэгістрацыю камэнтатараў праз тэлефон [The mats are gone’. What the media say about the registration of commentators over the phone],” Radio Liberty, December 3, 2018, https://www.svaboda.org/a/29635266.html.
  • 6. All Belarusians and foreigners in Belarus must provide their passport information when purchasing a SIM card or mobile subscription. Belarusians’ passport information is part of an electronic database including personal data that is accessible by the Belarusian government, including the Ministry of the Interior. See “Operation Heat in Action,” Charter 97, July 31, 2021, https://charter97.org/en/news/2021/7/31/431475/ and “’Passport’system,” Agat-System, http://www.agat-system.by/en/proekty/sistema-pasport.html.
  • 7. Tetyana Lokot, “Belarus bans Tor and Other Anonymizers,” Global Voices, February 25, 2015, https://advox.globalvoices.org/2015/02/25/belarus-bans-tor-and-other-an….
  • 8. “В Беларуси заблокированы 73 ресурса, среди них – сайты Радыё Свабода, Еврорадио, ‘Медиазона. Беларусь’ [73 resources have been blocked in Belarus, among them the sites of Radio Svaboda, Euroradio, ‘Mediazona. Belarus’],” Current Time, August 21, 2020, https://www.currenttime.tv/a/belarus-media-blocking/30796313.html.
  • 9. "Об установлении запретов и ограничений на перемещение товаров через таможенную границу Республики Беларусь [On the establishment of prohibitions and restrictions on the movement of goods across the customs border of the Republic of Belarus]," Decree of the Council of Ministers, March 18, 1997, No. 218, http://pravo.levonevsky.org/bazaby09/sbor76/text76050.htm.
  • 10. “Free Wi-Fi at ten Minsk metro stations in 2019,” BelTA, December 5, 2018, https://eng.belta.by/society/view/free-wi-fi-at-ten-minsk-metro-station….
C5 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Does state surveillance of internet activities infringe on users’ right to privacy? 1.001 6.006

Score Change: The score declined from 2 to 1 due to a sharp increase in social media monitoring and other forms of online surveillance of independent journalists and participants in 2020’s mass prodemocracy movement.

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, with no judicial authorization or oversight. Activists and journalists cite fears that their offices are bugged, their phone calls listened to, their locations tracked, and their online communications are at risk of being hacked.1

The government monitors email and internet chat rooms; it likely tracks opposition activists’ emails and other web-based communications. Authorities conduct raids and confiscate computer equipment to collect personal information on independent journalists. Independent monitoring of state-run television and online media documents the government’s airing of “leaked” telephone conversations, video messages, audio recordings, and personal correspondence that appear to have been obtained via surveillance.2

As Telegram’s popularity exploded in 2020, the security services ramped up efforts to monitor and infiltrate messenger chats, including closed groups. In May 2021, an employee of the Public Security Department at the Ministry of Internal Affairs testified that he had received screen shots of the posts by Mia Mitkevich that had resulted in her arrest and eventual sentencing to three years in prison from a member of the closed Telegram chat group “For Belarus.” The citizen who sent the screenshots of Mitkevich’s remarks about the police on Vk.ru, which Mitkevich had deleted after she was initially questioned, did not appear in court and their professional affiliation was not disclosed (see C3).3

In August 2020, Google removed an Android app that authorities used to spy on Belarusian protesters. Earlier in August, police raided the Minsk offices of Uber’s and Yandex’s ride-hailing services; protesters feared that the government was seeking to obtain location data to identify individuals who had taken part in demonstrations.4

The Belarusian government has long sought to develop and enhance its surveillance capabilities. Decree No. 187, which Lukashenka issued in the wake of mass demonstrations in 2017,5 created a centralized real-time video-monitoring system.6 The data collected by the system is available to the KGB, Ministry of Internal Affairs, Ministry for Emergency Situations, Presidential Security Service, and OAC,7 and can be shared with State Border and Customs Committees. That year, a news website in Gomel reported that the authorities appeared to be working overtime to install CCTV cameras on a major street in Belarus’s second largest city prior to the presidential election.

The Belarusian government has acquired surveillance hardware and software from Chinese, Russian, US, and Israeli companies. Huawei has been supplying video surveillance systems to the Lukashenka government since 2011. The Ministry of the Interior also works with Huawei,8 which in 2018 proposed that the Belarusian government deploy “video surveillance” and “integrated police systems” similar to those that the Chinese government uses.9 BeCloud and two of Belarus’s mobile providers are building 5G networks using equipment produced by Chinese companies: BeCloud and MTS are working with Huawei, and A1 with ZTE.10 Beltelecom is also working with Huawei on its development of 5G technology, which includes facial recognition for the purpose of creating a “smart mobile checkpoint.”11 In 2019, Danwatch and the OCCRP reported that the EU had provided surveillance equipment worth more than $2 million (4.2 million rubles) to the State Border Committee.12 This took place in spite of an EU ban on the export of equipment that may be used for internal political repression.

Since 2010, the government has been using versions of the Russian-developed System of Operative Investigative Measures (SORM),13 which provides the authorities with direct, automated access to communications data from landline telephone networks, mobile service providers, and ISPs.14 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.15 Grayshift, a US company, and Cellebrite, an Israel-based digital intelligence company, have also supplied the Belarusian authorities with tools for hacking into locked mobile devices.16 Experts believe that Cellebrite’s technology was used by security forces to hack smartphones during the coverage period.17 In response, Cellebrite announced that it will no longer sell its products to customers in Belarus in March 2021.18

Belarus has also developed a domestic capacity to produce surveillance tools. The Belarusian company Synesis is a leading producer of intelligent video surveillance systems. Synesis’s video surveillance platform Kiprod links tens of thousands of CCTV cameras in Belarus and other CIS countries.19 In 2020, the Belarusian government used Kiprod technology to identify protesters.20 In December of that year, the EU sanctioned Synesis for providing “the Belarusian authorities with a surveillance platform, which can search through and analyze video footage and employ facial-recognition software, making the company responsible for the repression of civil society and democratic opposition by the state apparatus in Belarus.”21

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

Belarus’s legislation on data protection is not in line with international standards. In April 2021, the Parliament approved a new law, “On the protection of personal data,”22 which will take effect in November 2021. The legislation includes a long list of instances in which the state can obtain personal data without a citizen’s consent, including court cases, national security matters, and elections—all of which the state has used in the past to silence independent and opposition voices. Experts are concerned that the law only partially emulates the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) with respect freedom of information, does not protect the rights of nontraditional media worker, and charges bodies within the Ministry of Internal Affairs with drafting its regulations.23

The government has also introduced a new article into its revised Administrative Code that institutes fines for the disclosure of personal data without the written consent of the subject. Article 23.7, which came into force on March 1, 2021, can be invoked by the victim as well as law enforcement agencies.24 A human rights expert believes that the new article is a putative response by the government to online activists who, during the protests, posted personal information about state officials and police officers on social networks.25

Belarus continues to develop the China-Belarus Great Stone Industrial Park, a flagship project of the Belt and Road Initiative, of which Belarus is a part. Launched in 2010, the joint initiative will be China’s largest industrial park abroad. Part of Great Stone’s focus is on telecommunications, electronics, and data collection and management. Four Chinese companies that have bases in the park for themselves or their Belarus subsidiaries—Huawei (the first registered resident), ZTE, CASC, and CETC—are on U.S. blacklists for surveillance-related activities.

The Belarusian government is working with Huawei to develop “smart cities” technologies.26 After launching a pilot smart city project in Orsha in 2019, the government announced in 2020 that it plans to expand the “Smart Cities of Belarus” project to Minsk and 11 more cities.27 The OAC also publicized work it had done on creating a “national smart platform” that will bring together and collect data “from all smart devices,” and make it available for “joint use” by “various agencies” to improve citizens’ security.28 In October 2020, the Belarusian government, a United Arab Emirates company, and a Serbian company broke ground on the Minsk-based “smart city” project.29

C6 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Does monitoring and collection of user data by service providers and other technology companies infringe on users’ right to privacy? 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 to obtain related metadata and data—such as users’ browsing history, including domain names and IP addresses visited—without judicial oversight. Since 2016, all ISPs have been required to retain information about their customers’ browsing histories 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, however, identifying data may sometimes be preserved for up to 10 years.3

Pursuant to Resolution 850 (see C4), website owners are required to store the personal data of all registered commenters.

Hotels, restaurants, and other entities are obliged to register guests before providing them with wireless access, whether free or paid.4

Websites on the national .by and .бел domains must be physically hosted in Belarus.5

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 relation to their online activities? 1.001 5.005

Score Change: The score declined from 2 to 1 due to unprecedented repression of journalists during the August 2020 protests including torture of detainees, as well as the hijacking of a Ryanair flight in order to secure the arrest of activist Ramen Pratasevich.

Government intimidation and attacks against online journalists and communities increased sharply during the reporting period. After the presidential election, bloggers and journalists faced arrest, arbitrary detention, and extreme physical violence by state agents in a government attempt to limit reporting on the protests. Human rights defenders documented at least 57 detentions in 2020 that involved violence against and the torture of journalists.1 Justice for Journalists identified 96 physical attacks against media workers in 2020—more than quadruple the number of the previous three years.2 The level of government violence and repression against the independent media in the reporting period was unprecedented in the country’s history. The Institute for War and Peace Reporting called Belarus “Europe’s Most Dangerous Country for Journalists.”3

Journalists for Justice identified an alarming trend of “hybrid attacks,” in which the government employs a combination of physical, nonphysical, legal, and economic repression in order to promote demoralization, self-censorship and withdrawal from the profession. It identified 162 such cases in Belarus in 2020.4

In May 2021, President Lukashenka ordered a Ryanair flight traveling from Greece to Lithuania diverted to Minsk, alleging a bomb threat. The incident, widely referred to as a “state hijacking,” was orchestrated to apprehend and arrest Raman Pratasevich, a Belarusian independent journalist and dissident living in exile in Vilnius. Pratasevich was a co-founder and former editor of Nexta and had assumed the role of editor-in-chief of the Telegram channel Беларусь головного мозга (Belarus of Brain) after Ihar Losik’s arrest (See C3). He was also working for Belamova, another independent Telegram channel. Pratasevich’s family and experts believe the blogger was tortured and coerced into making a public confession on state television.5 The hijacking sparked international condemnation.

In March 2021, unknown masked intruders raided the offices of Imaguru, the country’s largest start-up hub and coworking space, and arrested attendees during a tech event. In 2020, Imaguru’s founder and leader had joined opposition candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya’s Coordination Council. Imaguru also produced videos in solidarity with the repressed tech company PandaDoc, whose employees had been arrested for election-related activities (see C3). The month after the raid, the start-up hub’s lease was unilaterally terminated without explanation by the state-owned company that owns the building.6

In November 2020, Mikola Dziadok, a Telegram blogger and anarchist, was arrested under Article 342 and reportedly tortured and forced to de-encrypt his devices (see C3).7

In August 2020, Natalia Lubnevskaya, a Nasha Niva (NN.by) online journalist, was shot in the leg at close range by a special forces officer while covering a protest. The incident was captured on video, in which Lubnevskaya is clearly wearing a vest and badge that identified her as a member of the press. Lubnevskaya spent 38 days in the hospital and more time at home recovering. The authorities have yet to launch an investigation of the shooting.8 Lubnevskaya was one of three women journalists who were wounded by firearms while performing their reporting duties.

Ruslan Kulevich, a reporter for Hrodna.life, was detained in Grodno by security forces, despite wearing a vest marked “Press,” on August 11. Forced into a police van, Kulevich was severely beaten and both his arms were broken in front of his wife. After serving time in jail, he and his wife began receiving threatening messages, including sexual harassment, via social media and messengers. Officials refused to investigate Kulevich’s claim of bodily harm.9

Witold Dobrowolski, a Polish photojournalist who was arrested while covering a postelection protest in August 2020, described how he was part of a group of 300 people that police gathered on a basketball court, beat, and forced to kneel for five hours with their hands tied behind their backs.10 These are only three of many examples of violence, torture, and inhumane prison conditions experienced by independent journalists at the hands of the government.11

The state’s crackdown led to more than a dozen journalists and media leaders and, in some cases, their families, fleeing the country. In August 2020, Alexander Vasilevich, a cofounder of KYKY.org and the Village Belarus moved the editorial teams of both sites abroad after his arrest (see C3).12 After journalist Arina Malinouskaya, the host of a program on the Belsat internet television channel, left the country over concerns for her safety, authorities detained her family members and friends.13 When asked why he left Belarus, freelance journalist Anton Surapin explained that “My [journalist] colleagues are shot at, they are hunted by the security forces, they are imprisoned and deprived of their constitutional right to carry out professional activities.”14

In the course of the more than 500 detentions of journalists, bloggers, and media workers by state officials in 2020–21, many of the cases resulted in the confiscation and destruction of their professional equipment.15

Separately, reports in 2018 and 2019 by ARTICLE 19 found that hate speech against LGBT+ persons, members of ethnic and racial minorities, and women was pervasive in Belarus’s media.16 A more recent report, resulting from monitoring of online media outlets by the local organization Journalists for Tolerance (J4T), found a decrease in hate speech during the first half of 2020 in comparison to 2019.17 However, monitoring of the rest of the year found a significant increase in such speech compared to the first half of 2020. J4T found that the increase was related to Belarus’s political situation; the government negatively described LGBT+ individuals in an effort to discredit its political opponents. Overall, the organization found that the COVID-19 pandemic and political crisis led to an increase in hate speech in 2020.18 Hate speech laws do not offer protection for marginalized groups in practice.19

During the coverage period, extreme nationalist and chauvinist Russian websites and Russian-supported websites in Belarus also regularly utilized rhetoric that discredited all things Belarusian. For example, the iSANS think tank conducted a monitoring of 12 leading anti-Belarusian pages on the Russian-owned VK.com social media network in the first six months of 2020. It found that these pages not only denigrated Belarusian statehood, history, language, and culture, but also employed hate speech against independent journalists and bloggers, representatives of the democratic opposition, human rights defenders, cultural activists, and Belarusian-speakers.20

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

Prior to the coverage period, technical attacks were not pervasive in Belarus; however, in the wake of the August election, the level of cyberattacks jumped sharply. Offline protests after election day were accompanied by cyberattacks carried out by both the government and independent groups, with the latter being more active.

During the coverage period, the government employed Domain Name System (DNS) spoofing to censor the internet. Civil society groups documented how the authorities injected “fake entries into DNS servers, causing users to be directed to fake and malicious websites.” When individuals attempted to access prodemocratic websites, the DNS response would be substituted, and the connection interrupted. According to a joint report from civil society organizations Access Now, ARTICLE 19, Human Constanta, and International Media Support (IMS), the state-owned NTEC was responsible.1

Since the fall of 2020, a number of journalists had their online accounts hacked, presumably by the government. In March 2021, for example, the Telegram accounts of three members of the editorial team of NN.by were hacked. The attackers then deleted all the news for March 25—the unofficial Freedom Day holiday—and accounts of some 1,300 subscribers.2 In December 2020, the government seized the cell phone and modem of Siarhei Hardzievich, a reporter for the portal Pershy Rehion, and confined him to house arrest.3

The government selectively attempts to hold perpetrators accountable in these cases. Despite appeals to the authorities, no police investigations were carried out in any of the hacking cases involving independent media. However, when a progovernment lawmaker reported that his email was hacked on March 17, 2021, the Investigative Committee launched a criminal investigation the next day.4

In June 2020, there were two DDoS attacks against the prominent independent online news sources Belarusian Radio Racyja and Belarus Partisan,5 both of which the government has targeted in the past.

In the 2020 crackdown, the government targeted members and entities of the country’s IT community (see C3 and C7). In response, anonymous IT specialists known as the Cyber Partisans retaliated with hacking attacks against the state.6 The group altered the content of state websites and television and interfered with online financial portals to raise public awareness of repression.7 They also doxed 2,000 law enforcement officials.8 In the fall of 2020, the Cyber Partisans carried out approximately 15 attacks on state-run web resources. There were also reports of activity from other antigovernment hacking groups.9 Cyberattacks against online accounts of officials and entities linked to the government continued in 2021.10

The Belarusian government reported that cybercrimes grew by 25 percent in 2020.11 The company Kaspersky ranked Belarus 19th in countries with the greatest risk of online infections.12 According to Comparitech’s ranking of least cyber-secure countries, Belarus did worse in 2020, rising to 6th place among the 76 countries surveyed.13

On Belarus

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

See More
  • Global Freedom Score

    11 100 not free
  • Internet Freedom Score

    31 100 not free
  • Freedom in the World Status

    Not Free
  • Networks Restricted

    Yes
  • Websites Blocked

    Yes
  • Pro-government Commentators

    Yes
  • Users Arrested

    Yes