Belarusian authorities have blocked access to Germany's state-backed international broadcaster Deutsche Welle and Current Time, the Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA, amid an intensifying crackdown on the media and civil society following last year’s disputed presidential election.
The Information Ministry said on October 28 that the two news websites as well as that of Belarusian newspaper Novy Chas had been blocked for spreading material containing links considered “extremist” by Belarusian courts.
Internet users reported that the news sites did not open and later a message appeared indicating access was limited. However, the sites can still be accessed through virtual private networks (VPNs), which people can use to circumvent government restrictions on the web.
“The Information Ministry, within its powers, will continue to monitor compliance with national regulations and intends to continue to make decisions aimed at protecting the country's information space,” First Deputy Information Minister Andrey Kuncevic told state news agency BelTa.
RFE/RL President Jamie Fly condemned the move to block Current Time and vowed to continue providing information to the Belarusian people.
“The Lukashenka regime’s attempts to criminalize journalism know no bounds and are now depriving the Belarusian people of yet another independent source of news and information. Despite Lukashenka’s continued assault, RFE/RL and Current Time will continue to provide objective reporting to the people of Belarus,” he said.
Deutsche Welle Director-General Peter Limbourg said the blocking of the broadcaster for spreading extremist material was "absolutely ridiculous."
“Mr. Lukashenka has shown that he will stop at nothing to maintain his hold on power in his struggle against his own people," Limbourg said.
Dozens of news websites have been blocked in Belarus and independent media shuttered as part of a sweeping crackdown on information in the wake of unprecedented protests triggered by the August 2020 presidential election that gave authoritarian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka a sixth term. The opposition and the West say the vote was rigged to keep him in power.
Lukashenka's government has cracked down hard on the pro-democracy movement, arresting thousands of people and pushing most of the top opposition figures out of the country. The Vyasna human rights center says it considers 833 people to be political prisoners.
Authorities have also declared hundreds of opposition Telegram channels and social-media sites “extremist,” and anyone operating or using such sites can face jail time or fines.
In the latest move, the Belarusian Interior Ministry on October 29 classified three of the country's most popular opposition social media channels as “extremist” organizations.
The NEXTA news outlet, run from Poland, has three channels on Telegram, including NEXTA Live, which has 1.4 million subscribers in a country of 9.5 million.
“1.4 million more extremists appeared in Belarus today,” NEXTA wrote on Twitter. “Ministry of Internal Affairs recognized telegram channels NEXTA, NEXTA Live and LUXTA as ‘extremist formations.’ This means that criminal cases can be opened against creators, administrators, and subscribers in Belarus.”
Previously, anyone who reposted material from NEXTA could face a fine or detention for 30 days. But the new classification means subscribers could be prosecuted for participating in an extremist organization and be jailed for up to seven years.