Seven years for following a telegram channel? Some Belarusians opt out just in case

The government of the Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka has shut down independent media, blocked websites and imprisoned and tortured journalists in order to stamp out domestic criticism of his often brutal rule.

Now she may turn her attention to readers of the last vestiges of independent media in the country.

Belarusian internal police warned on October 13th that a new government ruling that subscribers to Telegram channels labeled “extremist” by the state will be considered participants in an “extremist” organization and will therefore be prosecuted.

That would mean citizens could face up to seven years in prison for viewing popular independent channels like Nexta Live! subscribe to. or Tut.by, which are among the 170+ channels and chats that the government describes as “extremist”.

The Internal Police claim they have this authority under a new Council of Ministers resolution that went into effect earlier this week and came into effect on October 14th.

However, the resolution purporting to fight “extremism and the rehabilitation of Nazism” makes no mention of criminal liability for Telegram subscribers and raises the question of whether the police are only trying to intimidate subscribers.

In a country criticized for disregarding 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 police released their notice.

Compared to the daily average for the past week, the number of subscribers to the channel increased tenfold.

Nexta Live! lost more than 10,000 more the next day. Tut.by, the second largest broadcaster, lost about 25,000 subscribers, or about 5 percent of its subscribers, over the two-day period. https://by.tgstat.com/e

The Telegram channel of the Belarusian service of RFE / RL has not been labeled “extremist” by the government, but like most independent media channels, it has seen subscriber churn.

The resolution, which was officially released on October 14, the day it came into force, made no mention of criminal liability for subscribing to a channel classified as “extremist”.

Rather, it describes the process of how the internal police should collect information and publish a list of people and organizations that are considered “extremist” by the authorities.

Even if it were mentioned in the decree, there would still be no legal basis for the police to arrest subscribers, said Belarusian lawyer Syarhey Zikratski said RFE / RL. Criminal liability cannot be introduced by decisions of the Council of Ministers or the Ministry of the Interior, he said. It must be introduced as an amendment to the Criminal Code.

In addition, he said the Criminal Code forbade “extremist acts” and argued that subscribing could not be considered consistent with that definition. However, Zikratski acknowledged that in Belarus “sometimes they do not act according to the law” and that “no one can be sure” that they will not be prosecuted for subscribing.

Pressure increase

The statement by the Internal Police is the authorities’s latest pressure on the Belarusian opposition since it took to the streets to protest the results of the August 2020 presidential election, which Lukashenka won in his favor despite allegations of widespread fraud.

Belarus crisis

Read our current coverage when the Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka increased pressure on NGOs and independent media as part of a brutal crackdown on demonstrators and the opposition following what was widely considered to be a fraudulent election in August 2020.

Over the past 14 months, Belarusian authorities have detained tens of thousands of demonstrators, hundreds of whom have been tortured, and shut down independent media websites. Many opposition leaders have been forced to leave the country.

More recently, the government has targeted channels on Telegram, which remains one of the few platforms available to the opposition and independent media to get their messages out there.

Belarus had labeled “extremist” more than 170 Telegram chats and channels as of August, almost all of which are run by independent media. The overwhelming majority of nominations have been made 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 action against individuals.

According to the Vyasna Human Rights Center, at the end of August more than 30 people faced fines or short prison terms of one to a few days for subscribing to or commenting on “extremist” telegram channels.

This process has accelerated since the shooting on September 28 between IT employee Andrey Zeltsar and the KGB security service.

Belarusian police arrested more than 100 people for commenting online on the shooting in which Zeltsar and an officer were killed. The circumstances of the incident remain unclear.

The police mainly charged the individuals with “insulting a government official” or “inciting social discord”. Many of them have theirs Comments about the incident on Telegram channels and chats.

Separately, earlier this month Belarusian police arrested Ruslan Kuzmich, a 38-year-old locksmith who participated in protests after posting a comment on an extremist Telegram channel. Posting a post to a video showing an unidentified man with a gun, Kuzmich reportedly wrote that it was 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 Europe and Central Asia at Human Rights Watch, told RFE / RL that the Belarusian authorities are taking such “extreme measures to stifle freedom of information and expression” that it would not be surprising if they did Policy of Criminalizing Telegram Subscriptions.

“Only the most repressive governments resort to prosecuting people, whether explicitly or indirectly, for what they read,” Denber said.

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