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Belarus: Internet Disruptions, Online Censorship

Authorities Restrict Internet Traffic over Continuing Protests

Protesters in Belarus, Minsk, holding up their smartphones. August 25, 2020. © 2020 AP Photo/Sergei Grits

(Moscow) – Belarusian authorities are disrupting internet access and restricting content online in response to peaceful, countrywide protests, Human Rights Watch said today. For over 18 days, protesters have demanded fair presidential elections and investigations into police brutality against demonstrators. 

Protests have been ongoing in Belarus since August 9, 2020, when the official results of the presidential election, which the demonstrators contend was rigged, were announced, prolonging Alexander Lukashenka’s 25-year rule. In response, police used rubber bullets, flash grenades, and physical force, with thousands of people detained and hundreds reporting torture and other ill-treatment.

“Belarusian authorities are interfering with internet access and restricting content online, apparently to demobilize protests and disconnect people in Belarus from information they have the right to get,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The Belarusian authorities should ensure people’s rights to freedom of information and expression and investigate the reports about police abuse, instead of trying to silence their protests.”

The blocking appeared to be an attempt to silence information about protests and severe police brutality against their participants, Human Rights Watch said.

From August 9 to August 12, internet access in Belarus was severely restricted for a total of 61 hours, leaving access only to 2G networks, permitting text messages and voice calls. Lukashenka, the National Center for Response to Computer Incidents, and Beltelecom, the state internet service provider, blamed foreign cyberattacks for the disruptions. But independent experts and an independent monitoring group have attributed these disruptions to government interference.

Once connection was restored, reports of the full scale of police beatings and other violence against protesters spread online, leading even more people to join the protests.

Since August 12, there have been repeated internet disruptions, apparently in response to the larger protests and law enforcement engagement. On August 14, protesters were unable to connect to mobile internet at the Independence Square in Minsk while law enforcement officers started to gather in the city center, Telegram channels reported. Three days later, a 15-minute nationwide disruption was recorded during what was meant to be a pro-Lukashenka protest. The disruption took place as the crowd started chanting, in reference to Lukashenka, “Go away! Go away!.”

On August 23, when more than 100,000 protesters gathered in Minsk, mobile internet services were disrupted for over three hours as protesters moved toward the presidential palace. Three days later, cellular internet was restricted in Minsk again for about an hour, coinciding with arrests at a protest in the city center.  

Ahead of the disruptions on August 23, the privately-owned internet service provider A1 notified its users that there would be temporary bandwidth restrictions of the company’s 3G networks due to “requests by the authorities related to ensuring national security.” In a separate message, the company also noted that the vast majority of the country’s internet service providers were required to connect via Beltelecom and the National Traffic Exchange Center, both of which have the technical capacity for internet disruption. The company reported that connectivity had been restored half an hour after posting the notification.

The authorities have also blocked websites that covered the presidential election, subsequent nationwide protests, and police brutality.

Notification saying that “the access to the website is blocked based on Belarus Ministry of Information decision in accordance with the Law On Mass Media”, August 26, 2020. © HRW 2020

On August 21, Tut.by, an independent Belarusian media outlet, reported that the Information Ministry had blocked more than 70 sources, stating that most sources’ websites featured an “access blocked” notification when users tried to access them. Among the sources listed as blocked there have been platforms for public initiatives for vote-counting based on users’ reports, human rights organization advocating fair elections in Belarus, websites of several of Lukashenka’s rivals who were imprisoned or barred from the presidential ballot, and independent news outlets reporting on the protests in Belarus.

The official registry of websites with restricted access in Belarus is only accessible to the authorities and internet service providers. The public does not have access to this list.

According to Tut.by, nine online sources received notifications that they were being blocked for “coordinating and calling for mass riots.” The notifications came from the Information Ministry, which is authorized by the Law on Mass Media to block content without needing judicial approval. The other sources that Tut.by reported as blocked did not receive any official confirmation, although access to them appears to be restricted “based on the decision of Belarus Ministry of Information,” Some of the sources listed in the Tut.by article are intermittently accessible. For example, the US government-funded Radio Liberty was accessible briefly on August 26, but inaccessible later that day.

The Belarusian Association of Journalists reported that it has been blocked since August 9, although the Information Ministry had responded to its queries saying that no decision had been made to block the organization’s website.

The government also appears to be blocking censorship circumvention services such as virtual private networks (VPNs), used by millions in Belarus to access the blocked websites. 

In 2015, United Nations and regional organization experts said: “Using communications ‘kill switches’ (i.e. shutting down entire parts of communications systems) can never be justified under human rights law.” Governments also have an obligation to ensure that any restrictions to information online are provided by law, are a necessary and proportionate response to a specific threat, and are in the public interest.

The UN General Assembly Resolution on “Promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the rights to peaceful assembly and freedom of association” says that governments should refrain from shutting down the internet as well as from imposing content restrictions that violate the legality, necessity, and proportionality criteria. Prohibition of internet disruptions by governments in relation to peaceful assemblies was reiterated by General Comment Number 37 on the right of peaceful assembly by the UN Human Rights Committee, which interprets the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Belarusian authorities should not disrupt internet and censor online content in response to peaceful protests, Human Rights Watch said.

“Instead of trying to demobilize demonstrations and silence reports on police abuse, the authorities should uphold freedom of peaceful assembly and ensure thorough and effective investigations into alleged police abuses and justice for the victims,” Williamson said.

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