Belarus: New Law Scares Away Internet Users

March 18th, 2010   Theme: Internet Freedom

The former KGB-boss Feliks Dzerzhinsky sternly watches over the bright yellow headquarters of the Ministry for Internal Affairs. In Belarus, a country which is often named the last dictatorship in Europe, the organization that he founded has kept both its old name and its old purpose. Streets named after Lenin and Marx brings back memories of the Soviet era, and the political climate is still dominated by the country’s president Aleksandr Lukashenko. In Belarus, opportunities for the opposition to reach out are scarce. The most commonly accessed media, the TV-channels are closed for the opposition as well as all but a few newspapers. Thus, political opponents to the regime have since long had to rely on direct contact, either through street rallies or through word of mouth.

In a country such as Belarus, internet and cell phones provide new opportunities to create a more diverse media environment, where blogs and independent newspapers might flourish. Tania and Ales, both politically active youth connected to the Hjalmarson Foundation’s sister parties BNF and UCP in Belarus. They enthusiastically describe how their organizations have started to use internet to reach supporters and to reach out with their message.

“Most people accessing the internet are educated young people. They are often unhappy with the regime but remain passive”, says Tania. “We are trying to reach them and to get them more involved”.

Internet has also become a way for Belarusians to keep in contact with each other. The Belarusian oppositional parties often operate under strict economic restraints. In that perspective, internet could be a way of keeping contact without expensive travel. Internet also helps in distributing information about recent events. Following a manifestation at the beginning of 2008 where several young people were arrested, the web forum Charter 97 was among the first to report the names of the arrested.

Just like their colleagues in China, the Belarusian regime has realized the dangers of a free and open net. On February 1st Lukashenko signed a new decree which makes it possible to restrict internet to a larger degree and to close down sites viewed as repulsive. The law also eliminates the possibility of being anonymous at the internet.

As of today, the full effects of the law remain unclear. There are those who remark that similar laws exist in several European countries and that the law therefore is not controversial. Others, however, say the problem lies in how the law will be brought into play. The Belarusian regime has a previous record of abusing legislation and using it against the political opposition.

Tania and Ales do not believe that the law will make a great deal of change. It is already possible for the regime to close down oppositional sites. In connection to a larger manifestation lately, Tania tells, several oppositional homepages were closed down in order to restrict the spread of information. Nevertheless, they are concerned that the law may have a negative effect on internet usage.

“I believe it will make people more afraid to use the internet”, Tania argues. However, the major concern to her and Ales is not closed down web pages. Instead, it is the lack of access.

“Maybe 30 percent of Belarusians are active users, that is, they use internet for more than just checking their e-mail.” says Tania. A restricted low-speed access to the internet costs around 30 dollars a month, in spite of Belarusian monthly salaries often being below 300 dollars. In addition, there are several internet providers, though these lack their own networks and must utilize the space provided by Beltelecom, a state monopoly. Lack of competition forces the Belarusian users to pay higher prices for less access.

“The government wants to restrict internet access. This new legislation is a part of this strategy. It wants to scare people to keep away from internet,” says Tania.

The Swedish MP Christian Holm, who is also a board member of the Jarl Hjalmarson Foundation, has visited Belarus at numerous occasions. He is very critical to the new law.

“Access to a free and open internet is, and should be, a basic right” Mr. Holm argues, pointing at internet being an important tool, both for economic and political development.

Christian Holm, however, believes in a positive future.

“Regimes that limit the freedom of information as well as other rights will come down. The main concern is how long it will take and how much damage they do before being replaced.

Evelina Lorentzon
Former senior project manager at the Jarl Hjalmarson Foundation

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