A new survey about digital freedom in Belarus was presented at the seminar "Is Digital Freedom Possible in Belarus?", which was organised by European Humanities University (EHU) and the Index on Censorship, an organisation in the United Kingdom celebrating forty years of operation. According to the participants of the discussion, the Internet is the only place where independent media can still express itself in that authoritarian country.
“In global freedom of expression indexes, Belarus ranks last. Independent media in this country has virtually been eliminated. Belarus, however, is also among the 20 states with the most rapid development of the Internet. Eighty per cent of Belarusians use the Internet on a daily basis. The Internet in Belarus is an island of freedom”, Andrei Aliaksandrau, Belarus and OSCE Programme Officer at Index on Censorship.
Still the Belarusian government has found ways to control digital channels too. The report on the survey conducted by the Index on Censorship identifies the measures taken by the Belarusian government to censor independent media channels. This includes application of repressive laws, criminal liability, persecution of journalists and activists, filtering of content, surveillance of users, and blocking of access to certain web sites. New measures, such as DDoS attacks against independent websites and content manipulation, particularly at politically critical times, for instance during the 2010 presidential elections, have also been used on the Web.
“For example, during the elections a false version of the Belarusian opposition website Charter 97 was developed. When you opened the website, it automatically redirected you and a similar looking page opened. Few people noticed that the website address changed, so they thought they were browsing the actual website of the organisation”, Alaksiej Lavončyk, the UN Democracy Fund Project Manager, said.
According to the participants, there is a requirement to register all websites in Belarus. They believe this is how content is controlled.
“In Belarus, users must be registered at Internet cafes and data about them must be stored. This is how the government controls how people behave online”, Andrei Bastunec, a lawyer and the vice-chairman of the Belarusian Association of Journalists, stated.
“Only a small number of people know how to get around the government’s restrictions and surveillance measures. Those who are most in need of information do not know how to do this”, Mr Lavončyk said.
The panel discussion was also attended by Dzmitry Karenka, an EHU lecturer, and Pavel Bykovsky, the head of the Political Unit of the newspaper Belorusy i Rynok (Belarusian Market). The Index on Censorship will also conduct training in Vilnius for journalists from Belarus.
The European Humanities University is a private, non-profit institution of higher education. This year the university is celebrating its 20th anniversary. Founded in Minsk in 1992, the university was moved to Vilnius after the government of Belarus closed the university in 2004. The university offers bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degree programs and encourages research in the humanities and social sciences. Nearly 2,000 students, mostly Belarusians, study at the university.