Belarus to make subscribing to certain social networks a criminal offense

An opposition supporter waves a historic white-red-white Belarusian flag in front of law enforcement officials during a rally to demand the resignation of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko more than a month after the election contested presidential election, in Minsk, Belarus, September 20, 2020. Tut.By via REUTERS / Files

KYIV, Oct. 13 (Reuters) – Belarusians who subscribe to social media deemed “extremist” face up to seven years in prison under new proposals released by authorities on Wednesday.

Social media channels such as Telegram Messenger were used extensively during mass protests against President Alexander Lukashenko last year, both to coordinate protests and share footage of violent police crackdown.

Some of the more well-known Telegram channels, including the NEXTA media outlet, were classified as “extremists” after the protests began. NEXTA has nearly 1 million subscribers while the Telegram channel of the news portal TUT.BY, which was shut down by the authorities, has 500,000.

The Belarusian anti-organized crime leadership said in a statement that “subscribers to extremist Telegram channels and chats will be held criminally responsible (…) as members of an extremist group”.

Over a hundred Telegram channels and chats have been recognized as extremists in Belarus. Anyone reposting their material can already be fined or detained for up to 30 days.

Protests erupted last year after a presidential election which Lukashenko opponents say was blatantly rigged to keep the veteran leader in power.

Tens of thousands of people have been arrested and human rights activists say more than 800 people have now been jailed as political prisoners since the protests.

Authorities recently launched retaliation against citizens who voice their dissent online. Hundreds of people have been arrested and face prison terms for making disrespectful comments about a KGB officer who died in a shooting in Minsk last month. Read more

“Belarus’ independent media are destroyed, many journalists are jailed, websites are blocked,” exiled opposition figure Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya wrote on Twitter.

“Now the regime is threatening criminal persecution and up to 7 years in prison for subscribing to” extremist “Telegram channels, including free media. The truth is banned in Belarus.”

Writing by Matthias Williams Editing by Gareth Jones

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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