Attacks on the Press 2010: Belarus

Top Developments
• Authorities wage post-election crackdown, raiding newsrooms and jailing reporters.
• New Internet law requires registration of sites, tracking of user activity.

Key Statistic
20: Journalists detained as government silences coverage of election protests.

In a massive post-election crackdown, authorities raided news outlets and detained at least 20 journalists covering protests over a flawed December 19 presidential vote that delivered a new term to incumbent Aleksandr Lukashenko. Leading journalists such as Natalya Radina, editor of the pro-opposition news website Charter 97, and Irina Khalip, correspondent for the Moscow newspaper Novaya Gazeta, were among those being held in late year. Security agents stormed newsrooms of major outlets, including Radio for Belarus and the satellite television channel Belsat. Observers with the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe criticized the government for secretive vote-counting practices and suppression of news media.


Main Index
Europe and Central Asia
Regional Analysis:
On the Runet, Old-School
Repression Meets New

Country Summaries
Other nations

Throughout the year, Lukashenko’s government moved aggressively to control the Internet, enacting an expansive new law and giving regulators broad new powers over online content and individual users. In January, Lukashenko signed legislation requiring that all Belarusian-domain websites register with the Information Ministry, that users present identification papers to access the Web at Internet cafés, and that Internet service providers collect client IP addresses and maintain lists of websites visited by customers. Internationally hosted websites that provide services to Belarusians were also required to register with the government under the law, which took effect on July 1.

By September, all domestic Internet service providers and the technology departments of all state educational, cultural, and government institutions were required to install filtering technology enabling them to block sites deemed objectionable by the government. In October, the government announced that it was compiling blacklists of both local and international sites deemed offensive. As part of the initiative, Lukashenko granted the state Operational Analytical Center the power to issue binding directives to state agencies and Internet providers concerning Web and broadcast content. Lukashenko’s son, Viktor, already a national security aide, was appointed head of the agency, reporting directly to his father.

Domestic Internet penetration reached 45 percent in 2010, a relatively high figure for the region, according to data from the International Telecommunication Union. Authorities had billed the Internet law as a way to combat pornography, extremism, and human trafficking, but analysts said its reach was much greater. Andrei Bastunets, a lawyer with the Minsk-based Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ), said “registration and control” were the government’s top priorities. He told CPJ that the vague language of the law, its filtering and monitoring requirements, and the creation of blacklists did not reflect the officially declared intentions. “All this leads one to suspect that all the provisions of the law will be used against independent news websites that are hosted on foreign servers,” Bastunets said.

Internet cafés strictly enforced ID collection in the initial months of the law’s enactment, while wireless providers demanded passport information from users who sought Wi-Fi connections, BAJ reported. The ID collection appeared to have cut business at Internet cafés significantly, Bastunets said.

BAJ itself was in the regime’s crosshairs. In January, the Ministry of Justice ordered the group to stop its legal assistance work on behalf of local journalists, revoke its membership cards, and halt the issuance of future cards. The order carried further legal consequences; two such directives could lead to the closure of the organization under Belarusian law. Authorities also ordered the opposition daily Narodnaya Volya and the independent regional newspaper Brestskaya Gazeta to print retractions of content deemed false by state officials.

But no news organization came under greater assault than Charter 97. In March, police in Minsk raided the outlet and confiscated all of its computers and electronic files, Charter 97 Editor Radina told CPJ. Authorities said the raids were part of an ongoing probe into alleged defamation of the regional security service head. (In 2009, several news outlets published a public letter in which relatives of jailed police agents accused regional KGB head Ivan Korzh of fabricating a corruption case against the officers. Korzh later won damages from the letter’s authors in a civil lawsuit, news reports said.) Prosecutors interrogated Radina extensively, examined the website’s computers, and tried to inspect individual e-mail accounts, journalists told CPJ. The offices of Narodnaya Volya and the apartment of reporter Khalip were also raided as part of the probe; Khalip and Narodnaya Volya editor Svetlana Kalinkina, a former CPJ International Press Freedom Awardee, were similarly interrogated.

Charter 97 cobbled together replacement equipment only to suffer at least a dozen distributed denial-of-service (DDOS) attacks during the year, Radina told CPJ. Coordinated communication requests sent from thousands of IP addresses overloaded Charter 97 servers, forcing it offline for days at a time. The timing of the cyber-attacks suggested government involvement: The heaviest attacks came after Charter 97 criticized the Internet law, covered a natural gas pricing dispute between Russia and Belarus, and streamed an anti-Lukashenko documentary produced by the Russian state-controlled broadcaster NTV. The three-part documentary–tacitly approved by the Kremlin amid ongoing political conflict with Lukashenko–accused the Belarusian leader of corruption, authoritarianism, and suppression of dissent, local press reported.

The greatest blow for Charter 97 came in September, when founder and director Aleh Byabenin, 36, was found hanged at his summer house outside Minsk. Authorities immediately declared the journalist’s death a suicide, a finding greeted with deep skepticism among colleagues. Dmitry Bandarenko, a friend who saw the body, told CPJ that Byabenin left no suicide note and had a number of unexplained injuries, including a badly twisted ankle and bruises on his left hand, chest, and back. He and Radina told CPJ that police conducted only a cursory investigation at the scene.

Facing local and international pressure to investigate the death more fully, prosecutors announced later in September that they would consider reclassifying the case as a murder and would allow independent experts to observe their work. Journalists were skeptical any active investigation would be done. As if to confirm their doubts, Lukashenko told Russian journalists in early October that Byabenin had committed suicide. With both independent and government media quoting the president’s words, his message to investigators was clear. And in December, prosecutors confirmed their initial finding of suicide.

Charter 97, which denounced the findings in the Byabenin case, also faced a series of threats against its staffers, Radina told CPJ. Anonymous users left comments on its website such as: “We killed one journalist, and your turn will come soon,” “Death to the opposition,” and “Maybe all Charterers should hang themselves? Radina–to the noose!” Other journalists, including Kalinkina of Narodnaya Volya, received similar threats after they publicly questioned the suicide finding in the Byabenin case. Radina and Kalinkina said such threats are a standard hazard in their professional lives. They said critical journalists in Belarus have their phones tapped, their e-mail accounts monitored, and their activities tracked by security agents. In late 2009, for example, Khalip received threats after she e-mailed an article to the independent Moscow newspaper Novaya Gazeta. The content of the threats, Khalip said, showed that her e-mail had been intercepted.