This past week, the lower house of the Belarusian parliament signed off on amendments to the country’s media laws to further restrict online news outlets and social media. This decision comes right before the presidential elections in November in which current President Alexander Lukashenko will run for another term. If Lukashenko wins, he would be extending his 20-year rule–which began in 1994.
— Victims of Communism (@VoCommunism) April 21, 2018
During the initial reading of these amendments on April 19, 98 lawmakers voted in favor while two opposed. These amendments will go into effect after one more session of the lower parliament.
Once that happens, news companies and outlets will have to register with the Information Ministry, and individuals will be prohibited from registering news sites or conducting media practices at private residences. Anyone working for an unregistered news outlet will not receive the same accreditation as those who work for registered outlets, and thus will lack the right to ask Belarusian officials for comments or produce audio or visual content in the country.
The amendments go further by limiting privacy for media workers. Unregistered news outlets will be forced to reveal their sources if required to by the government. All news websites will have to keep their information on government servers for a minimum of six months, including articles, contacts, records, etc.
These proposed laws will also expand censorship of social media by banning anonymous comments on all platforms and giving the government the authority to shut down any online networks without a court ruling.
— RSF_EECA (@RSF_EECA) April 19, 2018
There has been criticism from several organizations about the authoritarian nature of these amendments. The European Parliament said in Brussels on April 19 that these proposed laws would “threaten freedom of expression” and demanded that the Belarus government stop blocking the independent news website Charter97.org, which recently published an article stating that Reporters Without Borders has found a decrease in press freedom in Belarus.
The Committee to Protect Journalists has also documented the decline of press freedom in Belarus. This year, the Committee to Protect Journalists reported two incidents–one of which was the blocking of Charter97.org, while the other was the severe beating of a journalist by police before detainment. In 2017, the Committee to Protect Journalists reported seven incidents, including journalists being obstructed from covering protests and then arrested. The police also raided the TV station Belsat and detained a cameraman.
— CPJ (@pressfreedom) March 29, 2017
Multiple members of the Belarusian Association of Journalists have also spoken out, including Chairmen Andrei Bastunets and Zhanna Litvina.
“The internet remained the last free territory in Belarus,” stated Bastunets. “The authorities didn’t tolerate it for long and decided to strengthen control.”
Litvina echoed the European Parliament’s sentiments, stating that the amendments are “a new attack on freedom of speech.”