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Why is Belarus cracking down on independent journalists — and the Internet?

- August 15, 2018
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, top center, attends a military parade July 3, marking Independence Day — the end of the country’s occupation by Nazi Germany. (Sergei Gapon/Pool/AP)

Last week, authorities in Belarus detained at least 19 journalists from various independent media organizations and confiscated documents, cellphones and hard drives. All those detained were released by Aug. 10. The Investigative Committee accused the journalists of gaining unauthorized access to the state-owned national news agency BelTA.

The media crackdown in Belarus shows the government is serious about keeping independent media in check. It also suggests authorities are standing by to implement recently introduced restrictions on the Belarusian Internet, often called the “Bynet.”

In recent months, the Belarusian government has been working on new amendments to the law on mass media. Parliament has already approved the second and final draft of these amendments, which are scheduled to come into force Dec. 1.

Why did the government introduce new restrictions, and what does this tell us about how regimes respond to online opposition? Belarus has presidential and parliamentary elections coming up in 2020 — and that may help explain the government’s quest to tighten control over the Internet. But the new laws also illustrate increasingly sophisticated Internet censorship methods around the world. Here’s what you need to know:

1. What are the new rules in Belarus?

The new amendments equate Internet resources with traditional media by offering Internet sites the option to register voluntarily as media companies. The owners of websites and online reporters who choose to skip registration or fail to register their Internet resources will no longer be recognized as journalists and will forfeit the right to receive and protect sources of information. If they attend or cover mass actions, they will be treated as demonstrators.

At the same time, the document establishes restrictions for foreign participation in the formation of the Belarusian media space. This means no entity with more than a 20 percent foreign capital stake can be registered as a media company in Belarus.

In another change, Internet readers will now be prohibited from commenting on forums on domestic sites without authentication. Internet users will not lose their online nicknames, but the owner of the online portal will receive real information about those who comment — to bring the “anonymous” commenters to account in case the government decides their words are in violation of existing laws.

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The law also preserves the possibility of extrajudicial blocking of Internet resources, contains a ban on the distribution of foreign media products without permission and prohibits information leading to suicide, improper advertising and manufacturing explosive devices and explosives, as well as information containing personal data of minors who have suffered as a result of illegal actions.

2. Why implement these new amendments now?

The introduction of new Internet restrictions is an indicator of the Belarus government’s intention to plan ahead and implement a long-term, comprehensive — but not overly expensive — solution to potential online activism during the 2020 election season.

This has been done before — Belarusian authorities amended the mass media law a year or two before presidential elections in 2010 and in 2015.

Alexander Lukashenko, Belarus’s first and only president, has been in office since 1994. His proactive strategy seems an attempt to outmaneuver the Streisand effect — the theory that the more people try to cover something up, or censor it, the more attention and credibility it receives. (Yes, it was Barbra Streisand who famously tried to block photographs of her California home, only to find that thousands of people looked for the images because of the publicity.)

By introducing the restrictions now, the government allows time for the wave of discussion about the new restrictions to calm down. Its next task will be to prepare to fill the already restricted Web space with propaganda and spin to reinforce political ideologies.

3. What does this tell us about how regimes respond to online opposition generally?

In a recent article in Comparative Politics, Sergey Sanovich and his co-authors outlined three ways that authoritarian regimes respond to online opposition, including offline responses, online attempts to restrict access to content, and online attempts to engage with content in an effort to change the nature of the conversation.

The Belarusian example suggests that online restrictions imposed before elections minimize the need for an offline response when the elections roll around. By silencing domestic critics, preventing the emergence of political alternatives and reducing protests during elections, the government reduces the need for brutal crackdowns on opposition. And it may find it possible to limit attention on uncomfortable topics like arrests of opposition activists or falsification of the elections.

At the same time, a strong focus on online restrictions, but not online engagement, in Belarus shows the government’s increasing understanding of how to control its diverse electorate. The government delays full swing propaganda until expanded propaganda opportunities during the election campaign, when audiences are more receptive to its messages. In the meantime, Internet restrictions reduce the barriers for the “Spinternet” — using propaganda and spin to promote the government’s agenda — limiting the spread of alternative information.

The Internet supposedly offers the promise of a liberating world, providing citizens who live under authoritarian rule an opportunity to speak their minds and join their fellow citizens in holding their governments to account. The Belarusian example, however, provides further evidence that authoritarian rulers are determined to keep that promise in check — and may have found new tools to help them.

Tatsiana Kulakevich is a visiting professor of research methods and quantitative analysis at  the University of South Florida. 

This article is one in a series supported by the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Opening Governance that seeks to work collaboratively to increase our understanding of how to design more effective and legitimate democratic institutions using new technologies and new methods. Neither the MacArthur Foundation nor the network is responsible for the article’s specific content. Other posts can be found here.