China isn’t the only autocratic state to crack down on Internet freedom and netizens’ rights. Europe’s last dictatorship plans even tighter controls over citizens’ access to the digital world, says a new report from Index on Censorship:
Belarus has one of the most hostile media environments in the world and one of the worst records on freedom of expression. New digital technologies, in particular the internet, have provided new opportunities for freedom of expression but have also given the authoritarian regime new tools to silence free voices and track down dissent. As the internet has become an increasingly important source of information, the Belarus authorities have used a variety of different means to control it. Keeping a tight rein on information remains at the core of their policy of self-preservation.
This report explores the main challenges to digital free speech in Belarus, concentrating in particular on the ways the state authorities restrict freedom of expression online.
Firstly, it is done by applying a repressive legal framework, including draconian laws such as criminal libel, legal prosecution and the misapplication of the administrative code. Secondly, free speech is restricted by the use of new techniques, such as online surveillance, website blocking and filtering, and cyber-attacks against independent websites and content manipulation.
Our research indicates that the authorities now plan even tighter controls over citizens’ access to the digital world.
New legislation gives the authorities wide powers to censor online content, in particular on the catch-all grounds of “distribution of illegal information”, and to implement mass surveillance of citizens’ activities online. The government is spending heavily on the development of software that will allow the tracking of nearly all the activities of every internet user in the country. Western firms have been instrumental in providing equipment that has facilitated state surveillance. Since the growth in use of social networks, there have been several waves of arrests of moderators of popular online opposition groups and communities. Journalists and activists who express their opinions online have found themselves subject to criminal prosecutions for libel. Denial of service attacks have been used frequently against independent online media and opposition websites, especially on the occasion of elections and other major political events.
Index on Censorship calls on the government of Belarus to stop all disproportionate and unnecessary legal and extrajudicial practices, online and offline, that compromise freedom of expression. We call for immediate reforms to be launched to ensure free speech, as outlined in the conclusions and recommendations chapter of the report.
The European Union (EU), its member states and other European bodies, such as the Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), should further push the Belarus government to respect human rights in general and freedom of expression in particular and call for immediate reforms to facilitate the development of Belarus as a democratic state.
“Alexander Lukashenko has significantly expanded his government’s control over the internet in the last two years. Few people in Belarus realise the level of state surveillance now being carried out by Lukashenko’s security services,” said Andrei Aliaksandrau, Index’s Belarus programme manager. “This poses a huge threat to internet activists in Belarus. The threat of a 3 year prison sentence for libel against online journalist Andrzej Poczobut shows this threat is real.”
The regime is using sophisticated digital methods to curtail free speech made possible by new technologies including:
- Web filters: Index on Censorship tested the WiFi at locations across Belarus including the Institute of Journalism of the Belarus State University in Minsk which filtered five of the major independent websites
- Surveillance techniques which allow the state to intercept all online traffic
- The removal of secure access to particular websites including Facebook to potentially compromise users’ logins during election periods
- The creation of fake versions of independent websites (zapraudu.info, nn.by, charter97.org) to create ‘clone sites’ with out of date news – and DNS re-routing.
The threat to online freedom also comes from long-established methods the regime uses to chill free speech including: the restrictive media law of 2008, criminal libel laws and using unrelated laws such as ‘petty hooliganism’ to silence opinion with impunity.
The paper reports that the government of Belarus is one of the first to use distributed denial of service attacks (DDoS) to collapse the servers of opposition websites such as charter97.org.
“State surveillance is yet another way that Lukashenko is compromising freedom of expression in Belarus,” said Mike Harris, Head of Advocacy at Index on Censorship. “Index calls on the government to end online surveillance, release political prisoners and support its citizens’ rights to free expression. The European Union must also act to stop the export of surveillance technology to places like Belarus.”
Read the report in full here.