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In Belarus, the freedom of the internet is at stake

Europe's last dictatorship is clamping down on online activism, with a new law effectively requiring everyone to be a state spy.



Belarusian soldiers

As of this morning, the internet in Belarus got smaller. A
draconian new law is in force that allows the authorities to prosecute
internet cafes if their users visit any foreign sites without being
"monitored" by the owner. All commercial activity online is now illegal
unless conducted via a .by (Belarusian) domain name, making Amazon and
eBay's operations against the law unless they collaborate with the
regime's censorship and register there.

The law effectively implements
the privatisation of state censorship: everyone is required to be a
state spy. Belarusians who allow friends to use their internet
connection at home will be responsible for the sites they visit.
Some have tried to defend the law, stating all countries regulate the
internet in some form – but the Belarusian banned list of websites
contains all the leading opposition websites. The fine for visiting
these sites is half a month's wages for a single view.

The Arab
spring has been a wake-up call to the world's remaining despots. The
internet allowed images of open dissent to disseminate instantly. As Ben
Ali and Hosni Mubarak found out, once you reach a critical mass of
public protest you haven't got long to board your private jet. It's a
lesson learned by Alexander Lukashenko, the president of Belarus and
Europe's last dictator, and also by the Belarusian opposition.Lukashenko
attempted to destroy the political opposition after the rigged 2010
presidential elections. Seven of the nine presidential candidates were
arrested alongside thousands of political activists.

The will of those
detained was tested: there are allegations that presidential candidates
Andrei Sannikov and Mikalai Statkevich have been tortured while in
prison. The opposition is yet to recover; many of its leading figures
have fled to Lithuania and Poland.Within this vacuum of
leadership, the internet helped spur a civil society backlash. After the
sentencing of the presidential candidates, a movement inspired by the
Arab spring "The Revolution Via Social Networks" mushroomed into a wave
of protests that brought dissent to towns across Belarus usually loyal
to Lukashenko. As the penal code had already criminalised spontaneous
political protest with its requirements for pre-notification, the
demonstrations were silent, with no slogans, no banners, no flags, no
shouting, no swearing – just clapping."The Revolution Via Social
Networks" (RSN) helped co-ordinate these protests online via VKontakte
(the biggest rival to Facebook in Russia and Belarus with more than 135
million registered users). RSN now has more than 32,000 supporters.RSN
splits its four administrators between Minsk and Krakow to keep the
page active even when the state blocks access to the page, or the
country's secret police (hauntingly still called the KGB) intimidate
them.The protests were so effective at associating clapping with
dissent that the traditional 3 July independence day military parade was
held without applause with only the brass bands of the military puncturing the silence.
As lines of soldiers, trucks, tanks and special forces paraded past
Lukashenko and his six-year-old son dressed in military uniform, those
gathered waved flags in a crowd packed with plain-clothed agents ready
to arrest anyone who dared clap or boo.

The internet has kept the
pressure on the regime in other ways. Protesters photograph the KGB and
post their pictures online in readiness for future trials against those
who commit human rights violations. A Facebook group "Wanted criminals
in civilian clothes", blogs and Posobniki.com all help to expose those
complicit in the regime's crimes. The web has also helped spread the
stories of individuals who have faced brutality by the regime.It's
this effectiveness that has made the internet a target for Lukashenko.

The law enacted in July 2010 allowed the government to force Belarusian
ISPs to block sites within 24 hours.The new measures coming into
force today merely build upon these restrictions. The official position
of the Belarusian government from the operations and analysis centre of
the presidential administration is: "The access of citizens to internet
resources, including foreign ones, is not restricted in Belarus." Yet,
in reality the government blocks websites at will, especially during
protests.

Just after Christmas, the leading opposition website Charter 97
(which works closely with Index on Censorship) was hacked, its archive
part-deleted and a defamatory post about jailed presidential candidate
Andrei Sannikov published on the site. The site's editor, Natalia
Radzina, who has faced years of vile death and rape threats and escaped
from Belarus after being placed in internal exile last year, says she
has "no doubt" that the government was behind the hack. This is one of a
series of attacks on Charter 97, which include co-ordinated DDOS
(denial of service) attacks orchestrated by the KGB through an illegal
botnet of up to 35,000 infected computers worldwide.

The regime
has even darker methods of silencing its critics. In September 2010, I
flew to Minsk to meet Belarusian civil society activists including the
founder of the Charter 97 website, Oleg Bebenin. The day I landed he was
found hung in his dacha, his leg broken, with his beloved son's hammock
wrapped around his neck. I spoke to his closest friends at his funeral
including Andrei Sannikov and Natalia Radzina. No one believed he had
committed suicide, all thought he had been killed by the state. Bebenin
isn't the only opposition figure to have died or disappeared in
mysterious circumstances under Lukashenko's rule, a chill on freedom of
expression far more powerful than any changes in the law.Today
marks yet another low in Belarus's miserable slide back to its Soviet
past. Clapping in the street is now illegal. NGOs have been forced
underground
and their work criminalised.Former presidential candidates languish in
jail. The internet is the last free public space.

Lukashenko
will do all he can to close down this freedom. In Europe, the battle
has opened between the netizens of Belarus and its government. Who wins
will be a matter of interest for us all.• This article was commissioned after a suggestion made by Mimesis2. If there's a subject you'd like to see covered on Comment is free, please visit our You tell us page

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Added: Jan-7-2012 Occurred On: Jan-6-2012
By: allyssa
In:
Other News
Tags: internet, Belarus, censorship
Location: Belarus (load item map)
Views: 2555 | Comments: 10 | Votes: 0 | Favorites: 0 | Shared: 1 | Updates: 0 | Times used in channels: 2
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