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A Bad Turn in Belarus

In December, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko announced plans to tighten restrictions on the Internet, further extending the government’s already draconian control over online media. Reporters Without Borders has some new details about the Internet regulation.  The new bill would require registration and governmental approval of all online publications and websites, which would be monitored by an executive office.  The bill also requires identification and registration of all users, whether they are accessing the Internet at home or in Internet cafes.
Going further, the bill would impose requirements on ISPs to monitor and record information about Internet users and report such information to law enforcement and government officials. ISPs will also be forced to block websites that government agencies determine to be “extremist.” This new regulation comes on the heels of 2008’s media bill (in effect since February 2009) that allowed government agencies to shut down websites without warning and is part of a greater trend in tightening media controls in the country.
President Lukashenko claims he is only bringing Belarusian media law in line with practice in other western states, asserting that the law does not ban content, but will hold those that break the law online answerable for their wrongdoing. This rationalization is doublespeak at its best, considering that current media law allows the state to shutter media outlets if authorities find their content to be defamatory, "not corresponding to reality," or "threatening the interests of the state or the public."  Interpretation of these terms is, of course, left to government officials, leading to widespread self-censorship online in the face of such vague content prohibitions.
Traditional media has been tightly controlled in Belarus for many years, with no independent radio or television stations and a highly regulated newspaper industry. Citizens and traditional journalists alike have looked to the Internet as one of the last remaining outlets for expression and reporting unmediated by the government’s agenda. Lukashenko’s new proposal brings Belarusian Internet regulation even closer to China model – an unmistakable turn for the worse.