– Truly independent media is shrinking in Belarus
– Government is now targeting online media and access
– Lack of open media makes it difficult for people to understand opposition grievances
Belarus is considered one of the last authoritarian regimes in Europe and a true holdover from the Soviet era. Belarus’s human rights record under the regime of President Alexander Lukashenko has been heavily criticized in the West, leading to economic and travel restriction sanctions against the country and a diplomatic feud with the United States resulting in the majority of US diplomatic staff leaving the country (Previous Report).
The United States and other countries are concerned about Belarus’s treatment of opposition leaders, political dissenters and anti-government protestors. The state of democracy in Belarus is very precarious, and the government seems to be growing increasingly intolerant of any dissent. One area that the Belarusian government is targeting is the media, specifically the non-state media. Independent media outlets are becoming something of an anachronism in Belarus. According to Freedom House, a democracy advocacy group, Belarus is one of the worst three performers with regards to media rights.
New Media Laws
It no surprise that the government aims to suppress dissent by controlling the information that is available to the public. The Internet represents one of the last remaining domains in Belarus where outside and independent information can be found. However, it seems that the Belarusian government is now trying to gain some form of control over this domain as well. A new media law bill is being rushed through the legislature with little public hearing that will continue to restrict the operation of the media. One of the bill’s components allows for the government to pursue regulations on the registration of online media outlets. Although it is unclear if the bill actually allows for mandatory registration, free media advocates fear that if online media outlets had to undergo a particular registration process, their failures to gain licenses could result in blocked access. Government officials have already cited concerns that disinformation flows from abroad. Other provisions of this new bill may possibly make media outlets liable for disseminating false information that are detrimental to the state.
Suppressing the Media
The Belarusian government appears to be giving itself new legal powers to stifle the independent media. However, the independent media in Belarus has been under attack for some time. On April 26, 2008 a Denial of Service (DOS) attack was orchestrated against the Radio Free Europe (RFE)/Radio Liberty (RL) Belarus service. The service was covering protests in Minsk on the 20-year anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. In addition, opposition and foreign-based media websites, Charter 97 and European Radio for Belarus were also targeted. Although the perpetrator(s)of these attacks have not been identified, the Belarus government is suspected in this case because of the type of targets in this DOS attack. In March of 2008, security officials conducted raids on the offices of media outlets and searches of journalists’ residences. Journalists were also detained for questioning by authorities. Most of the entities and individuals targeted are believed to have journalistic ties outside Belarus as well. Later authorities claimed some of the raids were part of an investigation into the associations of some of these journalists with the creators of an animated cartoon insulting the President.
It is likely that censorship and hostile tactics against free and independent media outlets will continue in Belarus. The opposition movement has been weakened by government aggression and access to independent media is becoming more difficult as well. As a result, it becomes harder for the opposition to gain traction and support among the public when that public is kept in the dark.