Reporters Without Borders: Alarm over Lukashenka’s Threat to Put End to Online ‘Anarchy’
Reporters Without Borders voiced deep concern about President Aliaksandr Lukashenka’s comments during a visit to the state-owned daily Sovetskaya Belorussiya, when he said the government planned to increase its control of the Internet and ‘put an end to the anarchy’ online.
‘We cannot allow this great technical success by humankind to become a news sewer’, Lukashenka said, suggesting that a law should regulate the status of the electronic media. ‘We will not be pioneers, as these laws already exist in many countries,’ he added.
Reporters Without Borders said: ‘The main threat to the Belarusian Internet is slow death by suffocation as a result of the repression organized from the highest levels of government. The control which Belarus exercises over online news and information is one of the strictest of all the countries of the former Soviet Union. What Belarus needs is liberalization, not more surveillance.’
Zhana Litvina of the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ) said Lukashenka’s comments heralded new restrictions on the Internet, which she described as ‘the only remaining space where free expression is possible’ in Belarus.
‘We have noted many signs’, she said in a post on the BAJ website. ‘Including last February, when control of Internet cafés was reinforced, and at a meeting of jurists at the headquarters of Respublika (the official newspaper), when the idea of increased surveillance and control of the Internet was discussed.’
Predicting that Lukashenka’s comments would be followed by government action, she added: ‘Belarusians have no access to objective news and information about what is happing in their country. As a result, the Internet has become a space where urgent and sensitive issues are broached. But now the government is trying to gain control of all channels of information, especially those that are eluding censorship.’
Yury Ziser, the owner of the news aggregator ‘www.tut.by’, said ‘only those who do not use the Internet could describe it as a sewer’. On the registering of electronic media, he said: ‘Russia is an example in this respect. Companies with an Internet presence decide whether they want to register as news sources and many of them do so willingly.’
The government issued a directive on 10 February requiring the owners of Internet cafés and computer clubs to report anyone visiting illegal websites to the police. It also required them to keep the browser history for the past 12 months on all their computers. The police and members of the KGB (Committee for State Security) must be given access to these records whenever they request it.
The government has a monopoly of telecommunications in Belarus and does not hesitate to block opposition websites when it thinks it necessary, especially during elections. Independent news websites are also often the target of hacker attacks. Several sites critical of President Lukashenka mysteriously disappeared from the Internet for several days in March 2006.
Belarus was 151st out of 168 countries in the 2006 Reporters Without Borders ranking of nations according to respect for press freedom. Only two other former Soviet bloc countries, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, were ranked worse.