Protests in Belarus Provoke Internet Censorship

Protests have erupted in Belarus in response to immense inflation, political corruption, and media censorship; these protests have largely been organized online and, over the past few weeks, have resulted in increased Internet censorship.

In a country where government-regulated media predominates, the Internet has become central to opposition movements. With approximately one-third of all adults in the country on social networking websites, the potential for online grassroots organizing is great. Protesters in Belarus use social networking websites such as Facebook, Twitter, and Russian platform Vkontakte in order to circulate information about protests anonymously. Organizers describe their efforts as a “revolution by social networks,” a name that is now used by many to describe the grassroots opposition movement as a whole.

These protests have caught the attention of the Belarussian President Alyaksandr Lukashenko, who publicly denounced the unrest as the work of online agitators and “typical” social network users, whom he described as, “16 or 17 years old, a cigarette dangling from his lips and a girl under his left arm…They are part of our people, though it’s sad that today we have such youth.” Lukashenko also vowed to stamp out unrest online: “We have the opposition in Minsk on social networks. They use the Internet to call for strikes. I will look and watch, and then I will strike hard so that they will not get a chance to defect abroad.”

The government’s response to the unrest has been swift and severe, both online and offline. On July 3 and 4, Vkontakte temporarily shut down a main online opposition group, “Revolution by Social Networks: Movement of the Future”, which had called for protests via the platform. The shutdown came after thousands of Belarussians, some prompted by online calls to action, celebrated their nation’s independence by marching through the streets and clapping their hands in support of opposition movements and the “Revolution.” When the group became accessible on July 4, the number of members had fallen from 215,000 to 11,000. As of July 13, the group at the new address had nearly 26,000 members.

The government engaged in more serious censorship this week, when it blocked users from accessing several websites altogether, including Vkontakte, Twitter, and Odnoklasnik.net. On July 13, Telegraf.by reported Vkontakte inaccessible in Belarus via certain Internet service providers, including ByFly, an ISP operated by the national telecoms operator Beltelecom. Global Voices Online also covered the Vkontakte’s blocking, citing Telegraf.by and reports from users within the country, some of whom encountered difficulty loading the site and others–such as Interfax.by–who were able to access it. AFP and the Belarusian human rights organization Vyasna reported other social networking sites inaccessible, including Twitter and Odnoklasnik.net. By July 14, Vkontakte was up and running according to updated reports from both Global Voices and Telegraf.by.

These outages are not unprecedented in Belarus. According to Reporters Without Borders, the government and police of Belarus have a history of using the Internet in attempts to curb unrest in the country. In April, the interior minister and the police department in Minsk created Twitter accounts (@mvd_by) and (@GUVD_Minsk), which they now use to issue warnings to the public regarding public gatherings, curfews, and so on. In early June, the Vkontakte groups “We stand for great Belarus” and “There will be 1,000,000 of us – Lukashenka, leave!” were also suspended.

The government and the state police (KGB) have also used more subversive tactics online. For example, the Twitter account of The Independent’s Moscow correspondent Shaun Walker (@shaunwalker7) was cloned while Walker was in Belarus covering the protests. Hackers used the cloned account (@shaunnwalker, now defunct) to broadcast propaganda, spewing false information to readers in Russian. Similarly, Radio Free Europe: Radio Liberty reported that the KGB detained the administrator of Vkontake and coerced him into revealing users’ passwords, which were then used by the police to gather information about the protests and the opposition.

Written by Jane Abell

Re-published from ONI.org under The Creative Commons License.

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