Belarusian lawmakers have passed controversial amendments to the country’s media laws despite claims by domestic and international groups that the move risks leading to further censorship of the press.
The National Assembly on June 14 voted on the second and final reading of the draft amendments that the government says will enable it to prosecute people suspected of spreading "false" information on the Internet.
"The adoption of the legislation will facilitate the efficient provision of information security and the enforcement of citizens' constitutional right to receive full, accurate, and timely information," said Valyantsina Razhanets, the deputy chair of the assembly's Commission for Human Rights, Ethnic Relations, and Media.
In April, lawmakers gave preliminary approval to the amendments that would require that authors of all posts and comments in online forums be identified and that comments be moderated by website owners.
It would allow for social networks and other sites to be blocked if found in violation.
The Belarusian Association of Journalists and independent media outlets criticized the proposed changes to the law, as did the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), which said the legislation could "further censor" the media in the country.
CPJ Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Nina Ognianova said in a June 8 statement that the Belarusian government has "jumped on the bandwagon of 'fake news' not because it wants to shield citizens from falsehoods but because it wants more power to decide what information they receive."
Critics say they fear authoritarian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's government would use the law as a tool to tighten control over the Internet.
Belarus ranks 155th in the Paris-based media watchdog Reporters Without Borders’s (RSF) 2017 World Press Freedom Index, which evaluates the level of press freedom in 180 countries each year.
According to RSF, journalists in Belarus have received at least 48 fines since the start of 2018, most of them for reporters employed by Belsat TV, which is based in neighboring Poland.