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Belarusian authorities make one more attempt to gain control over Internet

On Apr 19, 2018, the Belarusian MPs approved the first reading of amendments to the law on mass media. As many as 98 MPs voted pro and only 2 voted contra. And it was not a surprise: the Belarusian MPs always approve initiatives coming from the Presidential Administration. The Belarusian Association of Journalists and some other NGOs had certain remarks concerning the amendments. The MPs promised to consider them during the second reading, but they will hardly do it, so, very soon we will see a new page turned in the history of Belarusian mass media and Internet.

Today Belarus has nine news agencies (seven of them are private), over 750 newspapers and 860 magazines (2/3 of them are private). It also has access to over 4,000 foreign printed media (from Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy, France) and electronic media, such as 176 radio programs and 103 TV programs (27 radio programs and 59 TV programs are private).

It has become a tradition in the country to make changes to the laws regulating mass media before each presidential or parliamentary election. The current law on mass media was adopted in 2008 and revised in 2014 - much to the displeasure of both local and foreign observers. In 2014, the changes authorized the government to restrict access to Internet media. The OSCE qualified them as a big threat to freedoms of speech and mass media in Belarus. This time, the MPs have gone even further and have decided to require state registration and identification for Internet media.

The new changes were announced in 2017 by new Information Minister Alexander Karlyukevich, who replaced Lilia Ananich after the scandalous “case of pro-Russian bloggers.” Karlyukevich announced new reforms and said that the changes in the law on mass media would reflect the processes taking place in electronic mass media and social networks. It is worthy to note that a few years before that, the Belarusian Association of Journalists had submitted a package of reforms in mass media but the Belarusian authorities had rejected them as inappropriate. In 2016, oppositionists Ana Kanopatskaya and Yelena Anisim suggested improvements to the law on mass media, but the MPs ignored them. Even more, the Belarusian authorities continue persecuting freelancer journalists in line with an Administrative Code article concerning illegal production and/or dissemination of content.

According to the current law on mass media, only certified foreign journalists or journalists employed by local news agencies have the right to work in Belarus, with Belarusian courts often ignoring the circumstances that there is no article stipulating any punishment for uncertified journalists and that news agency hiring such journalists should also be made responsible. As a result, in 2017-2018, they sued lots of bloggers and people who just had YouTube channels. In summer 2017, they prosecuted a video blogger from Gomel who was accused of using the popularity of his channel for shaping public opinion in his city. In 2018, similar charges were laid against video bloggers from Brest. We can also remember the “case of pro-Russian bloggers” when two of them, Yuri Pavlovets and Sergey Shiptenko, were accused of working without certificates even though they did not represent foreign mass media.

Experts believe that the new amendments will make things even worse as they will give the state full control over mass media. They say that Internet resources should have the right to register as online media on a voluntary basis (their chief editors should be citizens of Belarus with five-year managerial experience). In most countries, mass media are not registered at all. In 2003, the UN recognized registration of printed media as contrary to freedom of speech. For both registered and non-registered online media, there is a provision stipulating compulsory moderation of their forums and identification of their commenters. Online media should be responsible for the content of their forums and can be blocked if that content is contrary to the rules. If blocked, online media should appeal to the Information Ministry rather a court.

The amendments also say that Belarusian (national) programs should account for no less than 30% of a TV channel’s weekly broadcasting time unless otherwise stipulated by international agreements. Mass media are forbidden from broadcasting foreign information products without a permit to do so. The permit should be issued by the Council of Ministers. The amendments have already caused an uproar both in Belarus and abroad. On Apr 19, the European parliamentarians urged the Belarusian authorities not to approve the bill as it constitutes a serious threat to freedom of speech in their country.

The Belarusian authorities retort that the bill is aimed at protecting national and public interests and ensuring national security and considers the experience of Germany, France and the United Kingdom. According to Karlyukevich, certain people in Belarus would love to see no state regulation in the infosphere. “But the President has made it clear that the state will continue to regulate the sphere and my Ministry will follow his orders,” the Information Minister said. The Interior Ministry’s official Gennady Kazakevich believes that Belarus needs the amendments. “Internet is not only a benefit but also a harm and sometimes even a direct threat to a state, a society, a family and an individual – especially when cybercrime is concerned,” Kazakevich said, adding that Internet resources must be responsible for their information.

But lots of people in Belarus think otherwise. The co-owner of tut.by Yuri Zisser believes that registration will give no benefits to Internet resources and that extrajudicial control of their activities is nothing but tyranny. “As regards the requirement that users of Belarusian websites should get authorization, we may see the recurrence of the situation when almost all Belarusians watch Russian TV channels. If local online media lose users, they will also lose publicity and will not be able to survive,” Zisser said.

The amendments will also affect competition in the Internet environment. According to Gemius, today in Belarus, where 70% of people use Internet, there are only two popular Belarusian portals (tut.by and onliner.by). All the others are Russian or transnational. Blocking of undesirable websites, registration of Internet resources, 30% of national content – all this will help the state to strengthen the positions of “ideologically correct” state-owned mass media. In fact, from now on, the Belarusian authorities will be able to block Internet resources and bloggers out of court.

The key objective of the amendments is to resist information pressure from abroad. And since the most popular websites and TV programs in Belarus are prevalently of Russian origin and Russian-speaking, they will become the key target of the bill.

All independent experts and journalists are confident that the actual goal of the amendments is to establish full state control over Internet and to make state-owned mass media stronger. If the amendments are approved the way they are, very soon we may witness a series of suits against foreign journalists and growing ideological pressure on local Internet resources.

We may as well see the Belarusian authorities labeling some foreign mass media as foreign spies – even though President Lukashenko fears that this will complicate his country’s relations with Russia, “whose mass media often tell strange stories about Belarus.” On Apr 10, he told the owners of the biggest state-owned mass media that the Belarusian authorities would have to put labels on all who would act contrary to the new rules “as we have immunity only against western spies but not against eastern ones.” However, in 2019-2020, Lukashenko will face a new presidential election and may well change his attitude. And if he decides to adopt a new policy on Russia mass media, he will have the new law on mass media as a legal framework for it.

EADaily’s Western Bureau

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