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  • MASS MEDIA IN BELARUS. E‑NEWSLETTER № 3 (65) 2021. Restriction of freedom of media on the web


    Short Sum­ma­ry

    The gen­er­al sit­u­a­tion in the Belaru­sian media sec­tor has crit­i­cal­ly aggra­vat­ed dur­ing the year after the Pres­i­den­tial elec­tion in 2020. Mass media and jour­nal­ists have faced the unprece­dent­ed tsuna­mi or repres­sions. Jour­nal­ists have been detained more than 500 times after the elec­tion. More than 130 col­leagues have been sen­tenced to dif­fer­ent terms of arrest on admin­is­tra­tive charges. 68 col­leagues suf­fered from vio­lence or injuries. More than 60 mass media rep­re­sen­ta­tives have been pre­sent­ed crim­i­nal charges, 29 of them as of Octo­ber 2, 2021 were kept in cus­tody.

    Dozens of legal enti­ties of media orga­ni­za­tions have been liq­ui­dat­ed or face the per­spec­tive of liq­ui­da­tion in near future.

    The info pro­duc­tion of mass media, Web-sites, and blog­gers has been broad­ly rec­og­nized as extrem­ist mate­r­i­al with a ban on its dis­tri­b­u­tion by oth­er actors in the media field.

    More than 140 search­es and inspec­tions have been con­duct­ed.

    in the offices of the major­i­ty of inde­pen­dent nation­al and region­al media orga­ni­za­tions as well as at the apart­ments of their employ­ees. They were accom­pa­nied with the seizure of tech­ni­cal, doc­u­ments, and cash.

    The author­i­ties have restrict­ed access to more than 100 socio-polit­i­cal Web-sites as well as Web-resources of mass media in the coun­try.

    Most of nation­al and region­al inde­pen­dent news­pa­pers were forced to sus­pend their pub­li­ca­tion in the print form. How­ev­er, they con­tin­ue to exist online.

    The media orga­ni­za­tions that pro­vide assis­tance to jour­nal­ists and mass media have faced repres­sion as well. Thus, the offi­cial author­i­ties deprived more than 270 NGOs of their legal sta­tus, includ­ing the Belaru­sian Asso­ci­a­tion of Jour­nal­ists and the Belaru­sian PEN-Cen­ter, led by a Noble lau­re­ate Svi­at­lana Alek­siye­vich. The rep­re­sen­ta­tives of Press Club Belarus were pre­sent­ed crim­i­nal charges. The orga­ni­za­tion was liq­ui­dat­ed as well.

    The pres­sure on mass media and their employ­ees con­tin­ues and grows.

    Restriction of mass media freedom on the Web

    The gen­er­al trend of Belaru­sian state on restric­tion of free­dom of speech has includ­ed on-line media, social media, and oth­er sources of infor­ma­tion and com­mu­ni­ca­tion on the Web. Sub­ject to the nar­rowed pos­si­bil­i­ties of get­ting infor­ma­tion through the tra­di­tion­al mass media (more than 80 infor­ma­tion­al Web-sites were blocked for pub­lic access in 2020), the Belaru­sian audi­ence start­ed using more fre­quent­ly the mes­sen­gers, par­tic­u­lar­ly Telegram, and social media, par­tic­u­lar­ly YouTube.  

    Con­se­quent­ly, the offi­cial author­i­ties start­ed regard­ing the Inter­net as the main source of ‘oppo­si­tion­al’ ideas, i. e. any ideas that dif­fer from the offi­cial stand­point. The offi­cial dis­course start­ed refer­ring to the notion of ‘infor­ma­tion war’ as a com­po­nent of the ‘hybrid war’ that was alleged­ly start­ed against the Belaru­sian state with the use of mod­ern info tech­nolo­gies.

    “The easy access to the Inter­net for a wide audi­ence has made the glob­al Web a lead­ing source of infor­ma­tion. The vir­tu­al envi­ron­ment is the most pow­er­ful fac­tor influ­enc­ing the pop­u­la­tion nowa­days. At the same time, the infor­ma­tion dis­sem­i­nat­ed on the Inter­net is not always aimed at the devel­op­ment of soci­ety and the state. The Inter­net has become a tool of infor­ma­tion wars aimed at destroy­ing pub­lic foun­da­tions and moral val­ues, and some­times entire states,” – not­ed the Min­is­ter of Infor­ma­tion Ihar Lut­s­ki, pre­sent­ing a draft law on mass media activ­i­ties on April 2, 2021.  Since the time of Pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, the state has made numer­ous attempts to restrict access to infor­ma­tion online. Among oth­er, the author­i­ties applied such mea­sures as block­ing pub­lic access to the Web-sites of inde­pen­dent mass media and civ­il soci­ety orga­ni­za­tions, the forced dele­tion of crit­i­cal con­tent, recog­ni­tion of pub­li­ca­tions on inde­pen­dent media resources as ‘extrem­ist mate­ri­als’, and pros­e­cu­tion for dis­tri­b­u­tion of the alleged ‘extrem­ist mate­ri­als’.

    Accord­ing to the glob­al rat­ing list on Free­dom on the Net 2021 that was com­piled by the Free­dom House human rights orga­ni­za­tion, Belarus appeared next to Myan­mar and Ugan­da among the coun­tries with the reg­is­tered most sig­nif­i­cant aggra­va­tion of Web free­dom. In com­par­i­son with the pre­vi­ous year, Belarus lost 7 posi­tions on the list and got only 31 out of 100 pos­si­ble points.

    Changes in the Internet Regulation

    A num­ber of adopt­ed changes in the nation­al leg­is­la­tion in 2021 was aimed at facil­i­tat­ing the inter­fer­ence of the state into the activ­i­ty of Web-resources and intro­duc­ing stricter pun­ish­ment for expres­sion of thoughts online.

    ●    As a result of amend­ments to the Law ‘On Mass Media’, the Pros­e­cu­tor Gen­er­al, as well as the pros­e­cu­tors of Belaru­sian regions and the city of Min­sk have been giv­en the right to restrict access to Inter­net resources and online pub­li­ca­tions that dis­sem­i­nate infor­ma­tion aimed at pro­mot­ing extrem­ist activ­i­ties or infor­ma­tion that con­tains calls for such activ­i­ties, as well as infor­ma­tion that may harm the nation­al inter­ests.

    ●    Legal grounds for restrict­ing access to Inter­net resources and ter­mi­nat­ing the mass media oper­a­tion start­ed to include the deci­sions of Inter­de­part­men­tal Com­mis­sion on Infor­ma­tion Secu­ri­ty on the pres­ence of infor­ma­tion mes­sages that may harm the nation­al inter­ests if dis­sem­i­nat­ed.

    ●    The duty to present hyper-links on infor­ma­tion sources was stat­ed in the law ‘On Mass Media’. Obvi­ous­ly, it was done in order to pre­vent the pub­li­ca­tion of infor­ma­tion from the alleged­ly ‘extrem­ist’ sources.

    ●    Arti­cle 198–1 was intro­duced into the Crim­i­nal Code of Belarus (‘Vio­la­tion of Mass Media leg­is­la­tion’). It envis­ages legal respon­si­bil­i­ty for the own­ers of online resources that hasn’t been reg­is­tered as mass media for the dis­sem­i­na­tion of banned infor­ma­tion. (The def­i­n­i­tion of ‘banned infor­ma­tion’ is very vague and depends on the under­stand­ing of law-enforce­ment agen­cies.) In case of repeat­ed vio­la­tion of the law, the Web-site own­er may be sen­tenced to up to two years of impris­on­ment.

    The State Interference in the Online Media Activity and Prosecution of their Employees

    A broad range of search­es was con­duct­ed at the edi­to­ri­als of nation-wide and region­al online media in 2021. Their employ­ees were inter­ro­gat­ed. The police search­es were held in their apart­ments as well. Some of the employ­ees were pros­e­cut­ed on admin­is­tra­tive and crim­i­nal charges.

    In par­tic­u­lar, there were searched edi­to­r­i­al premis­es of ‘Binokl’ (‘Binoc­u­lar’) online media (Brest), ‘Ranak’ Web-site (Svet­la­horsk), ‘Intex-Press’ (Baranavichy), ‘Media Palessie’ (Pin­sk – Luninets), ‘Mot­snya Naviny’ (‘Strong News’) Web-site (Brest), Radio Lib­er­ty and oth­ers. As a result of police search­es, there were seized doc­u­ments and tech­ni­cal equip­ment that made the edi­to­r­i­al work more com­pli­cat­ed.
    The offi­cial author­i­ties took reg­u­lar planned steps on restrict­ing access of lead­ing online-media, includ­ing TUT.BY, nashaniva.by and naviny.by that fin­ished with their block­ing and fil­ing of crim­i­nal cas­es against their employ­ees.

    On May 18, 2021, the Belaru­sian author­i­ties start­ed the unprece­dent­ed attack on Tut.by, which is the most influ­en­tial inde­pen­dent info resource of Belarus. (This step was pre­ced­ed by a court deci­sion on depri­va­tion of ‘TUT BY Media’ LLC of its mass media sta­tus on Jan­u­ary 19, 2021.)

    The Depart­ment of Finan­cial Inves­ti­ga­tions filed a crim­i­nal case against its employ­ees under Arti­cle 243 (2) of the Crim­i­nal Code (large-scale tax eva­sion). Mass search­es were con­duced on that day in the TUT.BY offices in Min­sk, Brest, Vit­sieb­sk, Mahilou, and Hrod­na, in the offices of affil­i­at­ed com­pa­nies Hoster.by, Av.by and Rabota.by as well as in the pri­vate apart­meents of TUT.BY employ­ees. (Con­se­quent­ly, 14 of them were placed in cus­tody or under house arrest.)

    On the same day, the Min­istry of Infor­ma­tion of Belarus blocked pub­lic access to TUT.BY Web-site from Belarus and from abroad. The deci­sion was ground­ed on the note of Gen­er­al Pub­lic Prosecutor’s office that, alleged­ly, reg­is­tered ‘numer­ous facts of vio­la­tion of Mass Media Law’, in par­tic­u­lar, pub­li­ca­tion of BYSOL mate­ri­als. (It is a civ­il soci­ety ini­tia­tive that deals with rais­ing funds in sup­port of vic­tims of polit­i­cal repres­sions in Belarus. The Belaru­sian leg­is­la­tion bans dis­tri­b­u­tion of mate­ri­als on behalf unreg­is­tered orga­ni­za­tions.)

    On July 8, 2021, accord­ing to anoth­er deci­sion of Min­istry of Infor­ma­tion of Belarus, there was blocked access to the Web-site of ‘Nasha Niva’ (nn.by) online week­ly. The deci­sion was ground­ed on the note of Gen­er­al Pub­lic Prosecutor’s office that reg­is­tered the alleged ‘pub­li­ca­tion of infor­ma­tion that is banned for dis­tri­b­u­tion by arti­cle 38 part 1 of Mass Media law’. Con­se­quent­ly, police search­es were con­duct­ed at the office premis­es and pri­vate apart­ments of four ‘Nasha Niva’ offi­cers. Two of them – Yahor Martsi­no­vish and Andrei Skurko – were accused of caus­ing prop­er­ty dam­age with­out signs of theft (arti­cle 216 of the Crim­i­nal Code). They alleged­ly paid for the office util­i­ties at the rate for hous­ing util­i­ties. Both of them were placed in cus­tody until the tri­al.  

    On August 18, 2021, there were con­duct­ed search­es at the office premis­es of Bela­PAN inde­pen­dent News Agency as well as at the Bela­PAN employ­ees’ pri­vate apart­ments in Min­sk. The search­es were con­duct­ed with­in legal inves­ti­ga­tion of a crim­i­nal case on arti­cle 342 part 1 of Belarus Crim­i­nal Code (arrange­ment or prepa­ra­tion of actions that gross­ly vio­late pub­lic order or active par­tic­i­pa­tion in them).

    The Bela­PAN Web-sites (belapan.by and belapan.com) were total­ly blocked for pub­lic access. Six Bela­PAN empoy­ees were inter­ro­gat­ed at the Legal Inves­ti­ga­tion Depart­ment. On the same day in the evening the Legal Inves­ti­ga­tion Com­mit­tee pub­lished a state­ment that the ini­ti­at­ed tax audit of Bela­PAN activ­i­ty showed vio­la­tions of tax leg­is­la­tion.  The Bela­PAN Direc­tor Iry­na Leushy­na and the for­mer Direc­tor Dzmit­ry Navazhy­lau were tak­en to cus­tody as sus­pects on the crim­i­nal case, ground­ed on arti­cle 243 part 2 of Belarus Crim­i­nal Code (‘Tax eva­sion’).

    Huge fines were imposed on a num­ber of inde­pen­dent media Web-site for the pub­lished con­tent.
    Thus, the ‘Media Palesse’ Web-site own­er was fined 5771 Belaru­sian rubles (around USD 2300 in equiv­a­lent) for the alleged dis­tri­b­u­tion of incor­rect infor­ma­tion, in par­tic­u­lar, the phrase ‘The judges from Pin­sk refused to con­duct the tri­al. There­fore, the accused were trans­ferred to Brest’.  

    The author­i­ties con­tin­ued the prac­tice of block­ing access to the Web-sites of inde­pen­dent mass media. The def­i­n­i­tion of ‘copies of online resources’ was intro­duced into the nation­al leg­is­la­tion in March 2021. Con­se­quent­ly, the block­ing prac­tice was extend­ed to the so-called “mir­ror” Web-sites, which are cre­at­ed to bypass the blocks of tar­get­ed Web-resources.  
    Thus, there was restrict­ed access to a num­ber of “mir­ror” Web-sites of inde­pen­dent mass media, includ­ing the Naviny.online Web-resource of Bela­PAN News Agency,  Blstv.eu Web-site of ‘Bel­sat’ TV chan­nel,  euroradio.pl Web-site of ‘Euro­pean Radio for Belarus’, Zerkalo.io Web-site of TUT.by and oth­er.

    Since the autumn of 2021, there was start­ed a new wave of block­ing access to online news resources, includ­ing Media-Pоlesye.by,  the Web-site of ‘Belaru­sian Radio Racy­ja’,  belaruspartisan.by,  the Web-site of ‘Kom­so­mol­skaya Prav­da in Belarus’ and oth­er.
    On Novem­ber 4, 2021, in line with the deci­sion of the Min­istry of Infor­ma­tion of Belarus, there was blocked access to the Web-site of the Belaru­sian Asso­ci­a­tion of Jour­nal­ists, which is the largest inde­pen­dent jour­nal­ists’ orga­ni­za­tion in the coun­try.  

    Persecution of bloggers

    Since the time of pres­i­den­tial elec­tion cam­paign 2020, the Belaru­sian author­i­ties have regard­ed the crit­i­cal blog­gers as a dan­ger­ous source of infor­ma­tion. Prac­ti­cal­ly all pop­u­lar blog­gers, who expressed their opin­ion on the socio-polit­i­cal issues, were arrest­ed dur­ing that peri­od of time.

    On Sep­tem­ber 11, 2021, the head of ‘Belaya Rus’ pro-gov­ern­men­tal pub­lic asso­ci­a­tion Henadzi Davy­dz­ka not­ed that blog­gers had to be strict­ly con­trolled:

    “There is a huge dan­ger com­ing from the Inter­net com­mu­ni­ty and the so-called blog­gers nowa­days. Actu­al­ly, they are the actors that mould the pub­lic opin­ion.”

    Sev­er­al oppo­si­tion­al blog­gers were put on tri­al in 2021. All of them had been detained dur­ing the Pres­i­den­tial elec­tion cam­paign 2020 and pre­sent­ed crim­i­nal charges. All of them were sen­tenced to dif­fer­ent terms of impris­on­ment:

    • Uladz­imir Niaron­s­ki – 3 years of prison, arti­cle 342, part 1 of Crim­i­nal Code (arrange­ment and prepa­ra­tion of actions that gross­ly vio­late pub­lic order or active par­tic­i­pa­tion in them) and arti­cle 369 of Crim­i­nal Code (insult­ing a gov­ern­men­tal offi­cial);  

    • Pavel Spiryn – 4.5 years of penal colony, arti­cle 130 of Crim­i­nal Code (Incite­ment to racial, nation­al, reli­gious or oth­er social hatred);  

    • Siarhei Pia­trukhin – 3 years of jail, arti­cle 342, part 1 of Crim­i­nal Code (arrange­ment and prepa­ra­tion of actions that gross­ly vio­late pub­lic order or active par­tic­i­pa­tion in them) and arti­cle 391 of Crim­i­nal Code (insult­ing a judge or a lay judge);

    • Ali­ak­san­dr Kabanau – 3 years of jail, arti­cle 342, part 1 of Crim­i­nal Code (arrange­ment and prepa­ra­tion of actions that gross­ly vio­late pub­lic order or active par­tic­i­pa­tion in them).  

    In March 2021, there were filed two crim­i­nal cas­es against a pop­u­lar blog­ger Anton Matol­ka, who cov­ered the events, con­nect­ed with the Pres­i­den­tial elec­tion 2020, on arti­cle 130, part 3 of Crim­i­nal Code (‘in con­nec­tion with the com­mis­sion of inten­tion­al actions aimed at incit­ing social hatred on the grounds of pro­fes­sion­al affil­i­a­tion in rela­tion to gov­ern­ment offi­cials and law enforce­ment agents’) and arti­cle 3611, part 1 of Crim­i­nal Code (‘cre­ation of an extrem­ist for­ma­tion’). The Legal Inves­ti­ga­tion Com­mit­tee rep­re­sen­ta­tives stat­ed that Matol­ka unit­ed extrem­ist groups (the so-called ‘back­yard chats’), found­ed an extrem­ist for­ma­tion, and led it.  

    Legal inves­ti­ga­tion on the crim­i­nal case against blog­gers Raman Prata­se­vich (kept under house arrest) and Stsi­a­pan Put­si­la, the founders of a Telegram-chan­nel that played a cru­cial role in the cov­er­age of post-elec­tion protests and became the most pop­u­lar in Belarus as well as against the edi­tor of 1863x.com Eduard Palchyts (kept in cus­tody) was con­tin­ued this year. (The crim­i­nal case had been filed in 2020).  

    On August 16, 2021, a blog­ger Vadi­mati (Vadz­im Yer­mashuk) was arrest­ed in Hrod­na. He expressed protest against vio­lence, sup­port­ed polit­i­cal pris­on­ers, and attend­ed court ses­sions on ‘polit­i­cal’ cas­es. As it became known lat­er, two crim­i­nal cas­es were filed against him on arti­cle 368 of Crim­i­nal Code (‘insult­ing the Pres­i­dent of Belarus’) and arti­cle 370 of Crim­i­nal Code (‘defama­tion of state sym­bols’).  

    The use of legislation on counter extremism

    The leg­is­la­tion on counter extrem­ism has been applied on a large scale in order to restrict the free­dom of speech in the Inter­net. In par­tic­u­lar, all crit­i­cal state­ments and activ­i­ties have been regard­ed as ‘extrem­ist’ activ­i­ties.

    The crim­i­nal pros­e­cu­tion of online media was repeat­ed­ly ground­ed on the legal norms of anti-extrem­ist leg­is­la­tion. It became a usu­al prac­tice for the author­i­ties to per­se­cute online media for reposts or repub­li­ca­tions, which were labeled as ‘extrem­ist’ at a lat­er stage (in par­tic­u­lar, the con­tent of Telegram-chan­nels).

    The law ‘On the Amend­ment of Laws on the Issues of Coun­ter­ac­tion to Extrem­ism’ came into force on June 14, 2021.
    It broad­ened the already exist­ed pos­si­bil­i­ties for per­se­cu­tion for expres­sion of opin­ion. In par­tic­u­lar, the fol­low­ing kinds of ‘extrem­ist activ­i­ty’ were includ­ed into the list:

    - insult­ing or dis­cred­it­ing pub­lic author­i­ties or gov­ern­ment offi­cials;

    - dis­sem­i­na­tion of know­ing­ly false infor­ma­tion about the polit­i­cal, eco­nom­ic, social, mil­i­tary or inter­na­tion­al state of the Repub­lic of Belarus;

    - ille­gal actions against pub­lic order and pub­lic moral­i­ty, the order of gov­ern­ment, life and health, per­son­al free­dom, hon­or and dig­ni­ty, as well as the prop­er­ty, com­mit­ted in order to incite hos­til­i­ty.

    Cer­tain def­i­n­i­tions were amend­ed in the new ver­sion of the law. In par­tic­u­lar, not only the media pro­duc­tion that con­tains extrem­ist calls and pro­motes extrem­ist activ­i­ty is regard­ed as ‘extrem­ist mate­ri­als’, but also the media pro­duc­tion that ‘fos­ters’ extrem­ist activ­i­ties, and con­tains ‘extrem­ist sym­bols and attrib­ut­es’ is con­sid­ered like this. Also, there was broad­ened the list of forms, in which the ‘extrem­ist mate­ri­als’ can exist. In par­tic­u­lar, it was de-fac­to banned to pub­lish por­traits of peo­ple, who have been pun­ished on ‘extrem­ism’ charges, in mass media.

    There appeared the notion of ‘extrem­ist for­ma­tion (group­ing)’ as ‘a group of cit­i­zens that indulges in com­mit­ting extrem­ist activ­i­ties or fos­ters extrem­ist activ­i­ties or acknowl­edges the pos­si­bil­i­ty of apply­ing them in their work or funds extrem­ist activ­i­ties’. Unlike an “extrem­ist orga­ni­za­tion”, its exis­tence is deter­mined out of court by the Min­istry of Inter­nal Affairs or the KGB.  New arti­cles were intro­duced into the Crim­i­nal Code of Belarus. They defined lia­bil­i­ty in the form of restric­tion of lib­er­ty or impris­on­ment for any “facil­i­ta­tion of extrem­ist activ­i­ties” (Arti­cle 361–4) and “cre­ation of or par­tic­i­pa­tion in an extrem­ist for­ma­tion” (Arti­cle 361–1). The max­i­mum penal­ty under the lat­ter arti­cle is up to 10 years in jail.  The inno­va­tions of the Law on Coun­ter­ac­tion to Extrem­ism have been active­ly applied to inde­pen­dent media. Anoth­er mas­sive attack on the inde­pen­dent press and civ­il soci­ety of Belarus took place in July 2021.  

    On July 30, Ali­ak­san­dr Lukashen­ka named the alleged “infor­ma­tion attacks” as one of the tac­ti­cal direc­tions of attempts to desta­bi­lize the Belaru­sian soci­ety:

    “Every­one should under­stand now the pur­pos­es of cre­at­ing the biased media resources, such as Web-sites, Telegram-chan­nels, video blogs, groups in social media, and mes­sen­gers. The whole Belarus was cov­ered with this net­work. […] Thus, the free­dom of speech that we defend con­sti­tu­tion­al­ly has grown into extrem­ist activ­i­ty nowa­days. And we will fight against this fierce­ly and res­olute­ly. We will not retreat.”  

    Fol­low­ing the Telegram-chan­nels, the author­i­ties start­ed to regard the con­tent of inde­pen­dent online media as ‘extrem­ist mate­ri­als’. Thus, they rec­og­nized the Bel­sat TV Web-site, Telegram chan­nel and pages in the social media as ‘extrem­ist mate­ri­als’ on July 27, 2021.  

    Then, they rec­og­nized as ‘extrem­ist mate­ri­als’ the con­tent of Tribuna.com sports online media,  the con­tent of the lead­ing news por­tal TUT.BY and the con­tent of zerkalo.io Web-site that sub­sti­tut­ed TUT.BY it after the block­ing.  

    Tak­ing into account that prac­ti­cal­ly any Belaru­sian media used TUT.BY pub­li­ca­tions, all of them faced the risk of pros­e­cu­tion for the alleged ‘dis­sem­i­na­tion of extrem­ist mate­ri­als’.

    Thus, a range of inde­pen­dent media wasn’t includ­ed in the list of extrem­ist mate­ri­als. How­ev­er, the pub­lic access to their Web-sites was restrict­ed for pub­lish­ing the reposts or repub­li­ca­tions that had been regard­ed as ‘extrem­ist’ mate­ri­als. In par­tic­u­lar, the Pub­lic Prosecutor’s office for Brest region restrict­ed access to the ‘Media Palessie’ Web-site for 6 months on these grounds.  Since the sum­mer of 2021, the num­ber of court deci­sions rec­og­niz­ing extrem­ist mate­ri­als has dra­mat­i­cal­ly increased. 71 court rul­ings on rec­og­niz­ing 115 pub­li­ca­tions as ‘extrem­ist mate­ri­als’ were returned in June – July 2021. It was three times more in com­par­i­son with the peri­od since the begin­ning of April till the end of May 2021. 84 court rul­ings on rec­og­niz­ing 129 pub­li­ca­tions as ‘extrem­ist mate­ri­als’ were returned in August – Sep­tem­ber 2021. The over­whelm­ing major­i­ty of them was con­nect­ed with Telegram-chan­nels. How­ev­er, it was reg­is­tered for the first time dur­ing the whole his­to­ry of obser­va­tions that not only the Telegram-chan­nels were banned, but also the bots of some of the Telegram chats. As of August 21, 2021, 174 Telegram chan­nels and chats were rec­og­nized as ‘extrem­ist mate­ri­als’ by the author­i­ties, most of them in 2021. 

    Apart from the Telegram chan­nels, the author­i­ties con­tin­ued to include the accounts of inde­pen­dent media in oth­er social media into the list of ‘extrem­ist mate­ri­als’ – Face­book, VK. It was reg­is­tered for the first time in his­to­ry dur­ing the peri­od under review that the author­i­ties also banned pages of mass media in ‘Odnok­lass­ni­ki’, Insta­gram, and Tik­Tok.  

    Also, the author­i­ties start­ed apply­ing inno­va­tions of leg­is­la­tion on coun­ter­ac­tion to extrem­ism in the form of ‘extrem­ist for­ma­tions’ in order to pros­e­cute rep­re­sen­ta­tives of online media. At the begin­ning, the charges were pre­sent­ed to the cre­ators and admin­is­tra­tors of oppo­si­tion­al Telegram-com­mu­ni­ties. With the time pass­ing, the author­i­ties start­ed pre­sent­ing them to jour­nal­ists, too. Thus, two crim­i­nal police search­es with­in a month’s term were con­duct­ed at the pri­vate apart­ment, owned by a famous Belaru­sian TV- and radio pre­sen­ter Kat­siary­na Pytl­e­va in Sep­tem­ber 2021. The search­es took place as soon as she became the Pro­gram Direc­tor and pre­sen­ter of a pop­u­lar Youtube-project ‘Malan­ka Media’ in relo­ca­tion in Lithua­nia.

    It was only after the sec­ond search that she man­aged to learn that they had been con­nect­ed with the legal inves­ti­ga­tion on the crim­i­nal case that was filed for the cre­ation of an extrem­ist for­ma­tion. 

    On Novem­ber 3, 2021, the Min­istry of Inter­nal Affairs took a deci­sion to rec­og­nize ‘a group of cit­i­zens, who are unit­ed through the ‘Bel­sat’ Web-resources’ as an extrem­ist for­ma­tion. At that moment of time, the List of orga­ni­za­tions, for­ma­tions, and indi­vid­ual entre­pre­neurs, con­nect­ed with extrem­ist activ­i­ties, includ­ed 11 ini­tia­tives and groups that were unit­ed through Telegram-chan­nels and chats. The Min­istry of Inte­ri­or empha­sized in its state­ment that the founders, man­agers, and par­tic­i­pants of such for­ma­tions would be pre­sent­ed crim­i­nal charges on arti­cle 361, part 1 of Crim­i­nal Code (‘estab­lish­ment of an extrem­ist for­ma­tion or par­tic­i­pa­tion in them’) that envis­ages up to 10 years of impris­on­ment. 

    More­over, in order to lim­it the influ­ence of inde­pen­dent media, the author­i­ties began to apply the anti-extrem­ist leg­is­la­tion as the grounds for pros­e­cu­tion of Web-users for dis­sem­i­na­tion of media con­tent that had been rec­og­nized as ‘extrem­ist mate­ri­als’. The forms of pun­ish­ment on admin­is­tra­tive charges include not only fines, but also dif­fer­ent terms of admin­is­tra­tive arrest.

    On May 7, 2021, the Belarus Pros­e­cu­tor Gen­er­al’s Office issued a state­ment that pros­e­cu­tors mon­i­tor mes­sages on the Web on the dai­ly basis. At the same time, it was empha­sized that “any step on the Inter­net, whether vis­it­ing a cer­tain Web-resource, or rat­ing cer­tain images or mes­sages in the social media, or post­ing or com­ment­ing on them, are record­ed.”  

    The Web-users are even pun­ished for ‘dis­tri­b­u­tion of extrem­ist mate­ri­als’ in pri­vate cor­re­spon­dence. Thus, e.g., Pavel Smirnou from Min­sk was sen­tenced to 15 days of arrest for send­ing a mes­sage from TUT.by Telegram chan­nel to his friend as soon as the police offi­cers got access to his mobile phone.


    The large scale of non-stop inter­fer­ence of the state in the inde­pen­dent online jour­nal­ism activ­i­ty as well as in the use of social media and mes­sen­gers prove true that the author­i­ties con­sid­er the free­dom of speech on the Web as a form of oppo­si­tion­al activ­i­ty.
    How­ev­er, in spite of all repres­sive mea­sures, the influ­ence of inde­pen­dent news and infor­ma­tion sources con­tin­ues to grow.  


    Inde­pen­dent mass media
    Jan­u­ary 2021
    April 2021
    July 2021

    State mass media
    Jan­u­ary 2021
    April 2021
    July 2021

    I trust        Hard to say        I don’t trust


    As before, the inde­pen­dent news Web-sites hold lead­ing posi­tions in the nation­al media space. The state-owned news Web-sites lag behind. Although the major­i­ty of inde­pen­dent news Web-sites were blocked for pub­lic access in 2020–2021, they man­aged to diver­si­fy their chan­nels of infor­ma­tion dis­tri­b­u­tion in the social media and mes­sen­gers and kept the trust of their audi­ence.  


    The mes­sen­gers used for get­ting infor­ma­tion

    How often do you use the fol­low­ing infor­ma­tion sources?
    What mes­sen­gers do you use most fre­quent­ly in order to learn the news or find the need­ed infor­ma­tion?
    75% of respon­dents active­ly use mes­sen­gers, most­ly Viber and Telegram.

    At least once a week
    Less than once a week
    Don’t use / No account avail­able
    N/A / Hard to say

    Face­book Mes­sen­ger
    Google Hang­outs
    N/A / Hard to say




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