Operations and Analysis Centre (OAC)
The Internet is the main bastion of freedom of information in Belarus, where censorship and self-censorship are the rule among traditional news outlets. Since 2008, the authorities have had an armoury of technological, administrative and legal weapons at their disposal to exert their control over the Web.
The Operations and Analysis Centre (OAC) was established in 2008 and reports directly to President Alexander Lukashenko. It ensures data collected by Internet service providers complies with the law. The centre can impose sanctions if any are required. More generally, it is responsible for administering the national domain .by and coordinates Internet surveillance operations. Surveillance is carried out by several government agencies including the State Control Committee, the State Telecommunications Inspection and the Public Prosecutor’s Office. The ministry of information and information technology completes the repressive regulatory apparatus of used by the Belarus government.
Faced with the rapid development of information technology, the authorities in the first instance used existing legislation to penalise libel, defamation of the president and insults including those directed at the president or anyone in an official position. This legislation does not refer specifically to cyberspace, but allegations of discrediting the republic and hooliganism are among those most frequently made against netizens.
It was not until 2008 that legislation specifically aimed at online information made its appearance. A series of media laws were passed in 2008 and entered into force in February 2009, severely undermining Internet freedom. News sites were classified as media outlets and had to register in order to have legal status. Any that received more than 30 percent of the funding from abroad were banned from receiving this official stamp of approval, necessary to be able to publish any foreign content. The cabinet was meant to set out the criteria allowing a website to be classified as a news outlet, but no decisions have yet been made in this regard.
The real legislative turning point came in 2009 with the enactment of Decree 60, “on measures for improving use of the national Internet network”, which boosted control over the Internet. It introduced the Russian SORM surveillance system, requiring ISPs to pay for its installation and to keep the harvested data for a year.
Internet service providers must block access to any illegal site or content, such as those containing pornography or inciting violence, without the need for a court order. To do so, they must to refer to two lists of sites that are banned from being accessed from official institutions or Internet cafes. One is publicly available but empty, the other is accessible only by ISPs and the authorities themselves.
In February last year, the authorities announced that the second list contained 119 sites, including the online newspapers charter97.org and belaruspartisan.org, and the websites of the Belarus Association of Journalists and the Human Rights Centre “Viasna”.
Decree 60 brings Internet café owners into the Belarussian censorship and surveillance system, making them responsible for recording the identities of customers and keeping a record of their online activities for a year, making them available to the authorities if required. An amendment was approved in 2012 requiring Internet users to provide their passports only when accessing the Web via a wifi hotspot. However, Internet café owners are now also obliged to photograph or film their customers.
Websites providing services to the public must register using the national .by domain and be hosted on Belarussian territory. Since 2012, any breach of this regulation is liable to severe fines.
Defamation as a control mechanism
Examples abound of journalists accused of defamation as a result of what they have published online.
In July 2011, Andrzej Poczobut, a correspondent of the Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza, was given a three-year suspended prison sentence for publishing online stories about the Belarussian president that were ruled defamatory.
More recently, Dzianis Dashkevich, the editor of the online newspaper vrogacheve.ru, has been subjected to numerous intimidation attempts. On 19 November last year, police searched his house, seizing two computers and a modem. The operation was launched after a local government official, Vasil Karalchuk, lodged a complaint that the site had insulted a representative of the state.
It followed the publication of an investigation into the alleged large-scale theft of gasoline by the official while he held office in the town of Zhlobin.
Those working in the media are not the only ones to be targeted – any netizen who criticizes the government falls foul of the law sooner or later.
Ruslan Mirzoev made a name for himself on the Internet in 2012 when he uploaded videos showing the daily lives of workers at the Minsk Automobile Plant where he worked. As a result of the reports, he was fired in July 2013 then imprisoned for seven days on 9 August for hooliganism. However, these abuses did not deter him from continuing with his project to post documentary footage about the grim reality of life in his home city. He was sentenced to a year in prison for violating house arrest.
Finally, the blogger Aleh Zhalnou of Babruysk has been the target of persecution by the authorities. Well-known for his exposures of police misconduct in his hometown, he has been picked up by the police at least 40 times in recent months. He has been the subject of legal proceedings 14 times, as well as being searched several times and having computer equipment seized. He has also been forced to undergo numerous psychiatric examinations.
Not all the legal actions have been heard, but in early February the public prosecutor opened yet another criminal case against him. He is accused of insulting a representative of the state arising from postings on his blog in which he criticized the behaviour of the local police force. In early November, he was given a fine of 200 euros. The judges upheld a complaint accusing him of disobeying the police on 4 September last year, when he and his eldest son were manhandled and detained briefly for trying to film police vehicles parked illegally on a pedestrian crossing.