Niamh Callinan | Euro & Eurasia Fellow
In 2019, Belarus was named one of the most censored countries in the world in a report released by the Committee to Protect Journalists. The report highlighted how censorship within Belarus worked. Belarus media was controlled almost absolutely by authorities, with the few independent journalists and bloggers facing sanction in an effort to weaken and diminish independent news outlets. Further to this, legislation introduced in 2018 augmented the state’s ability to regulate news websites and social media, creating a concurrent power to the state’s control over internet service providers and ability to conduct digital surveillance on citizens.
Censorship is a prominent tool used by authoritative states as a means to assert ongoing control and stability of the regime. Censorship is an apparatus that prevents criticism of a regime from independent/or non-state-controlled sources (such as media or even academia) and restricts citizens ability to produce, obtain and access information. Such a tool is a powerful means to effectively quell dissident and opposing views of the regime. The framing of censorship in the case of Belarus is done so to align with the regime’s nationalist policies which present foreign meddling within the country as its biggest threat.
The Lukashenka Effect
On August 9, 2020 Alyaksandr Lukashenka, the longest-serving European ‘ruler’ having held office since 1994, was re-elected as President of Belarus in what was officially pronounced as a landslide election. Many reports indicate that the election results were in fact rigged, and the results themselves triggered mass protests across the country.
During this period the internet was effectively shut down, with severe restrictions nationally. Over 70 portals were blocked including websites which covered the presidential election, provided political commentary and even pages relating to human rights. The shutdown, whilst publicised as a network failure, is an eminent indication of the state’s attempt to regain control over its citizens after the election results.
In January, 2021, Lukashenka indicated his government’s desire to introduce a total ban on social media networks, expressing: “social networks and messengers can help foment revolutions around the world. We see that many countries also report events that are organized through these networks from abroad.” This rhetoric indicates firstly the State’s perception of social media as a tool of dissent, and secondly the need for such communication to be ceased.
On May 23, 2021, journalist Roman Protasecivh was taken into custody due to his channel on Telegram (a messaging app) that shared content about the elections and protests that took place in August the year previous. Amnesty International reported as well that other participants in the protests – predominantly university students – are being expelled and imprisoned due to their involvement. The imprisonment of those who have publicly denounced the state’s actions is a mechanism to assert control, punishing those who act and deterring others.
Emerging Resistance Due to the ongoing and increasing nature of censorship within Belarus, a number of censorship avoidance tactics have emerged to reclaim individual online freedoms. Such means include the use of VPN and proxy software, free anonymizers, as well as using privacy apps including Telegram, to access information and to get around the various restrictions imposed by the state.
Another approach has been through the game servers of Minecraft. Reporters Without Borders have created an online library in which Belarusian journalists and citizens can share and access information, and is providing a viable platform for censored material to be accessible globally.
These approaches depict how available technologies can be utilised in a manner to create, build and establish innovative alternatives to the dissemination of information. Further to this, the popularity of these mechanisms demonstrates a recognition that freedom to access and obtaining information, particularly from independent sources, is crucial to the maintenance of other civil and political liberties. Whilst censorship in Belarus continues to prevail, those who have the capability to do so, are fighting back.
The internet network of Belarus, one of the most censored states in the world, is employed as a means to simultaneously control information and monitor citizens’ activities further entrenching the states’ authority. Antagonistically, citizens are also utilising the internet network, in a co-ordinated effort to counter the state’s authority. The case of Belarus demonstrates that technology should be conceived not only as a way to share, access and obtain information, but also as a means by which a network of resistance can be built to counter censorship in the 21st century.
Niamh Callinan is the Europe & Eurasia Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.