Internet Freedom and Freedom of Expression in Belarus

The Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor published 2021 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices on April 12, 2022. The document provides a factual and objective record on the status of human rights worldwide – in 2021, covering 198 countries and territories. The section on Belarus paints a clear picture of abuses of peaceful protestors demanding democracy and fundamental freedoms.


In particular, Report on Belarus highlights internet freedom decline following the 2020 presidential election with repression against online journalists, activists, and internet users.

The government employed systematic, sophisticated surveillance techniques to monitor its citizens and control online communications at its discretion and without independent authorization or oversight.

  • Since 2010 the government utilized the Russian-developed System of Operative Investigative Measures, which provides authorities with direct, automated access to communications data from landline telephone networks, mobile service providers, and internet service providers.
  • The government also blocked and filtered websites and social media platforms.
  • Authorities sought surveillance and hacking tools from several countries and developed domestic capacity, including the company Synesis, that links closed-circuit television cameras in Belarus and other Commonwealth of Independent States countries[1].
  • State television reportedly obtained state surveillance footage and wiretap transcripts from state security services that it used to produce progovernment documentaries and coverage.
  • All telecommunications operators are required to install surveillance equipment, making it possible for the government to monitor traffic in real time and obtain related metadata and data, such as users’ browsing histories, including domain names and internet protocol addresses visited, without independent judicial oversight.
  • All internet service providers are required to retain information about their customers’ browsing histories for one year.
  • Companies are also required to preserve identifying data regarding their customers’ devices and internet activities for at least five years and to turn over this information at the government’s request.
  • The government monitored email and social media. While individuals, groups, and publications were generally able to engage in the expression of views via the internet, including by email, all who did so risked possible legal and personal repercussions and often were believed to practice self-censorship. Opposition activists claimed their emails and other web-based communications were likely monitored.
  • Registered news websites and any internet information sources were subject to the same regulations as print media.
  • Filtered and blocked internet traffic
  • Ordered telcos to restrict mobile internet data severely on the days when large-scale demonstrations were expected or occurred.
  • Blocked access to sites that fail to obey government orders, including because of a single violation of distributing prohibited information, without a prosecutor or court’s mandate
  • Attempted to restrict or block social media outlets
  • Punished individuals for expressing their political views online

As an answer to that there were politically motivated cyberattacks. Government webpages and databases were reportedly hacked.

Since May 2020 authorities undertook significant steps to suppress freedom of expression

  • Harassing opposition bloggers and social media users and detaining some of them on short-term jail sentences.
  • Dismissing hundreds of state employees who expressed political dissent or participated in protests after the presidential election, including those employed as television hosts, radio and other media personnel, teachers, civil servants, law enforcement officers, athletes, university administrators, hospital administrators, and diplomats.
  • Criminalizing actions such as giving information that authorities deem false or derogatory to a foreigner concerning the political, economic, social, military, or international situation of the country. As of September the Ministry of Internal Affairs declared that more than 200 Telegram channels and online chat groups had been recognized as “extremist organizations” by the courts and warned that subscribing, storing materials, and reposting information from these channels would be punishable under the law.

Violations of freedom of expression for members of the press and other media, including online media:

  • State-owned media dominated the information field and maintained the highest circulation through generous subsidies and preferences.
  • Since August 2020 Russian state-media organizations largely controlled and managed Belarusian state-run channels, ensuring pro-Lukashenka and pro-Russian viewpoints continued to dominate the press.
  • Since October 2020 authorities allowed only nationals of the country where a media outlet is based to be accredited as correspondents. All Belarusian stringers for major Western outlets were stripped of accreditation in 2020 and were not reaccredited when they applied during the year. Some subsequently left the country.
  • Authorities continued to harass and detain local and foreign journalists routinely, particularly those operating as freelancers or working for foreign outlets without accreditation.
  • Security forces continually hampered efforts of independent domestic and foreign journalists to cover demonstrations and protests in Minsk and across the country, used violence against journalists, brought false allegations against them, and sentenced them to jail terms for doing their jobs.

Censorship or content restrictions. The government

  • shut down all major independent media in the country,prohibit or censor reporting,periodicals or newspapers for three months without a court ruling.
  • tightly and directly controll the content of state-owned broadcast and print media.
  • extensively censors the internet
  • penalize those who publish items counter to government guidelines.
  • use discriminatory publishing and distribution policies, including limited access to government officials and press briefings
  • press businesses not to advertise in newspapers that criticized the government.

Libel/Slander Laws. The law provides large fines and prison sentences of up to four years for defaming or insulting the president. Penalties for defamation of character make no distinction between private and public persons. A public figure who is criticized for poor performance while in office may sue both the journalist and the media outlet that disseminated the critical report for defamation.

[1] In December 2020 the EU sanctioned Synesis for providing “Belarusian authorities with a surveillance platform…making the company responsible for the repression of civil society and democratic opposition by the state apparatus.”

For concrete examples check the Report on Belarus:

Leave a Reply