The European Union says a new Internet decree in Belarus is a "step in the wrong direction" at a time when Brussels is scrutinizing Minsk's record on issues like free speech and freedom of the press.
The EU says President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's decree of February 1 appears to contravene standards set out in the so-called Eastern Partnership -- an initiative aimed at improving ties between the EU and its eastern neighbors.
The official website of the Belarusian president say the decree he issued is "an attempt to protect the rights of Belarusian citizens, society and the state in the field of information." Government websites claim the decree will help the country's economy by developing the Internet.
But critics are crying foul. They say the decree, which is due to go into effect on July 1, is a poorly disguised attempt to shut down opposition media on the Internet during the campaign for the next presidential election in early 2011.
Indeed, the decree calls on all Internet providers in Belarus to store data on the Internet use of individuals for a full year and to hand that information over to law-enforcement agencies upon request.
It also requires Internet service providers to block access to any website within 24 hours of being asked to do so by government regulators -- a provision that goes beyond antiterrorism security rules imposed under the most restrictive Internet laws in Western countries.
"Whatever the president is calling this decree, it is not done to improve the situation of Internet freedom in the country," said Lucie Morillon, head of the Internet Freedom Desk at the Paris-based press freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders.
"It is actually a way to tighten control online," Morillon told RFE/RL. "It is a way not only to be able to track down dissidents and people who criticize the government, but it is also a way to intimidate those people who believe the Internet is a way to find and disseminate information that they cannot find in the traditional media."
EU Weighs In
European Union foreign affairs officials have now weighed in on the issue, telling RFE/RL the decree is "a step in the wrong direction" at a time when Brussels is trying to gradually increase its engagement with Belarus.
"This new presidential decree on the Internet, if it comes into effect of course, would further curb the freedom of speech and information in Belarus," said Lutz Guellner, the spokesman for EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton. "We would consider it, therefore, as a significant step in the wrong direction. We hope that the Belarusian authorities would look into this again."
Guellner says one key issue for the EU in regard to the Eastern Partnership with Belarus is whether the decree is implemented in a way that silences political opposition or restricts the free flow of information or freedom of the press:
"The EU wants to gradually engage with Belarus but it depends on tangible progress in specific areas that have been identified," he says.
"The EU has regretted the lack of progress, in particular, in the area of human rights and fundamental freedoms but also in how political action was dealt with -- crackdowns on peaceful political actions; the continued denial of registration of many political parties and independent media," he says. "That is exactly the context in which we are looking at this specific new decree."
Guellner explains that for the Belarusian economy, what is at stake with the Eastern Partnership initiative is help toward unifying trade regulatory systems -- a process that would open up possibilities for imports and exports, for business, and for investments on both sides.
"To give you a very tangible example, if Belarus is working toward what we call closer 'regulatory convergence' in the area of health standards for products that it is exporting -- for dairy products, for example -- when it gets there, then it can also export dairy products [to the EU]. It can export cheese. It can export yogurt and things like that. But it can only happen when this regulatory approximation has been done. And that applies for a whole range of goods and areas that are of potential interest to Belarus."
What Do Belarusians Think?
Syarhei Balykin, a lawyer and business owner in Minsk, told RFE/RL he doesn't think the new decree is going to cause any immediate problems for Belarusian firms trying to do business.
"I think there won't be big difficulties in business because foreign investors are not specified in this law," Balykin said. "The only problem I see is the requirement to have all Belarusian firms registered with the [Belarusian] domain name 'by.' It is much more expensive than registering with the dot-com domain name used internationally."
But Kyril Paznyak -- an Internet journalist and publisher of the Belarusian online publication "My" -- sees the decree in the context of earlier government moves to close down traditional printed newspapers with opposition view and the ongoing state control over broadcast media in Belarus.
"I believe that the main purpose of this decree is to scare the Internet community into self-censorship," Paznyak told RFE/RL. "It is understandable why authorities have ideological concerns about the Internet. It is the place where all independent press has been pushed."
"The Internet is where civic journalism in Belarus is still developing with political blogs and publication of textual information and multimedia from ordinary citizens," he said. "Most importantly, it is a virtual environment where the major part of alternative communications exist -- where different communities are being created, including political groups and civic activism."
Uladzimir, a young Internet user in Minsk, told RFE/RL he doesn't believe the government's claims that the decree will help clean up violent or sexually explicit content from the Internet in Belarus.
"All this legal language in the decree about fighting pornography and violence on the Internet is a folk tale," Uladzimir said. "None of this kind of content will disappear. What will disappear are viewpoints that are different from the official government-propagated information in Belarus."
OSCE Studying Decree
"Our office has been informed that this decree has been issued and as part of our normal monitoring procedures, we are looking into it," said Roland Bless, director of the office of Miklos Haraszti -- the Representative on Media Freedom at the Vienna-based Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. "It will take a while before we come to a conclusion."
One method the OSCE could use in its review would be to submit the decree to legal experts who would highlight any potential pitfalls of the document -- including how it is implemented in practice as well as issues that may only come to light if the decree is challenged in the Belarusian courts.
The OSCE legal experts could measure the decree against international standards on media freedom. They also could refer to how similar legislation has developed or been implemented in other countries.
If they determine the decree violates the OSCE commitments of Belarus, delegates from the organization could approach the Belarusian government directly to recommend changes.
RFE/RL's Belarus Service contributed to this report