Belarus adopts restrictive media law amendments, blocks websites

New York, December 23, 2014–The Belarusian parliament adopted amendments to a restrictive media law last week, and President Aleksandr Lukashenko signed them on December 20, according to news reports. The Committee to Protect Journalists is alarmed by the broad and vaguely worded provisions of the law, which extend restrictions on the traditional press to the online media. The amendments will be implemented on January 1.

“Belarus is already one of the world’s most repressive societies, and the new amendments to the country’s media law add further restrictions on freedom of the press and freedom of expression,” CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator, Nina Ognianova, said. “Since traditional news outlets have been subdued, the government has turned to censoring the Internet–the last remaining space for independent news and views in Belarus. We call on the government to scrap these restrictions.”

According to the amendments, owners of news websites are responsible for content posted on their website, including information deemed to be extremist or capable of harming national interests. CPJ research shows that such amendments are routinely abused by authoritarian governments to censor critical reporting and commentary. Other provisions allow the information ministry to block access to news websites without court authorization and forbid unregistered foreign TV programs from broadcasting.

The amendments come as authorities on Sunday blocked several independent news websites, including the independent Belarusian news website Charter 97, and Internet portals in apparent retaliation for their coverage of citizens’ reactions to the depreciation of the Belarusian ruble. The websites, which were blocked independent of the law, are still inaccessible.

“We call for access to independent online news platforms to be restored immediately in Belarus,” CPJ’s Ognianova said. “Blocking outlets that report facts unpalatable to the government won’t make those facts disappear.”