The government of Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka has shut down independent media, blocked websites, and jailed and tortured journalists in an attempt to stamp out domestic criticism of his often-brutal rule.
Now it may be turning its sights toward readers of the last vestiges of independent media inside the country.
Belarus's Internal Police warned on October 13 that a new government resolution considers subscribers to Telegram channels labeled by the state as "extremist" to be participants in an "extremist" organization and, thus, subject to criminal prosecution.
That would imply that citizens could face up to seven years in prison for subscribing to popular independent channels like Nexta Live! or Tut.by, which are among the more than 170 channels and chats labeled "extremist" by the government.
The Internal Police claim they have that power under a new resolution passed by the Council of Ministers earlier in the week that came into force on October 14.
However, the resolution -- which purports to fight "extremism and the rehabilitation of Nazism" -- makes no mention of criminal liability for Telegram subscribers, begging the question of whether the police are just seeking to intimidate subscribers.
In a country that has been criticized for ignoring the rule of law, some citizens are not waiting to find out.
Nexta Live!, the most popular Telegram channel in Belarus, lost more than 18,000 subscribers on October 13, the day the police published their notice.
It represented a 10-fold increase compared with the daily average over the past week in the number of people unsubscribing from the channel.
Nexta Live! lost more than another 10,000 the following day. Tut.by, the second-largest channel, lost about 25,000 subscribers over the two-day period, or about 5 percent of its subscribers. https://by.tgstat.com/e
The Telegram channel of RFE/RL's Belarus Service has not been proclaimed "extremist" by the government, but like most channels run by independent media, it has seen an exodus of subscribers.
The resolution, which was officially published on October 14, the day it entered into force, makes no mention of criminal liability for subscribing to a channel considered "extremist."
Rather, it outlines the procedure for how the Internal Police is to collect information and publish a list of people and organizations the authorities consider "extremist."
Even if it were mentioned in the decree, there would still be no legal basis for police to arrest subscribers, Belarusian lawyer Syarhey Zikratski told RFE/RL. Criminal liability cannot be introduced by resolutions of the Council of Ministers or the Interior Ministry, he said. It must be introduced as an amendment to the Criminal Code.
Furthermore, he said the Criminal Code outlaws "extremist actions" and argued that subscribing cannot be considered to fit that definition. However, Zikratski conceded that in Belarus things are "sometimes not done according to law" and that "nobody can be sure" they won't be criminally charged for subscribing.
Ramping Up Pressure
The Internal Police statement is the latest pressure tactic by the authorities against the Belarusian opposition since it took to the streets to protest the results of the August 2020 presidential election, which Lukashenka claimed to win despite claims of widespread fraud in his favor.
Crisis In Belarus
Read our ongoing coverage as Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka ramps up pressure on NGOs and independent media as part of a brutal crackdown against protesters and the opposition following an August 2020 election widely considered fraudulent.
Over the past 14 months, the Belarusian authorities have jailed tens of thousands of protesters, hundreds of whom have been tortured, and shut down independent media websites. Many opposition leaders have been driven to leave the country.
More recently, the government has been targeting channels on Telegram, which remains one of the few platforms available for the opposition and independent media to get their messages out to the public.
Belarus had, as of August, labeled more than 170 Telegram chats and channels, including nearly all those run by independent media, as "extremist." The overwhelming majority of the designations have come since February.
Belarusian police have been saying for months that subscribing to an "extremist" channel or chat is an administrative offense and have taken some actions against individuals.
According to the Vyasna human rights center, as of late August, more than 30 individuals faced fines or short jail sentences lasting from one to a few days for subscribing to or commenting on "extremist" Telegram channels.
That crackdown has accelerated since the September 28 shoot-out between IT worker Andrey Zeltsar and the KGB security service.
Belarusian police have arrested more than 100 people for online comments regarding the shoot-out, which left Zeltsar and one officer dead. The circumstances surrounding the incident remain unclear.
The police have mainly charged the individuals with "offending a government officer" or "inciting social discord." Many of them made their comments about the incident on Telegram channels and chats.
Separately, Belarusian police earlier this month arrested Ruslan Kuzmich, a 38-year-old locksmith who participated in protests after he posted a comment in a Telegram channel considered extremist. Under a post of a video showing an unidentified man with a gun, Kuzmich reportedly wrote that it's time for citizens to take up arms. He faces up to six years in prison on charges of promoting extremist actions.
Rachel Denber, deputy director of the Europe and Central Asia Division of Human Rights Watch, told RFE/RL that the Belarusian authorities were going to such "extreme measures to strangle freedom of information and expression" that it would not be surprising if it adopted a policy of criminalizing Telegram subscriptions.
"Only the most repressive governments resort to criminally prosecuting people, whether explicitly or obliquely, for what they read," Denber said.