Reporters Without Borders is concerned about the constant harassment of online journalists and Internet users. In the latest case, Natalia Radzina, the editor of the Charter'97 opposition website (www.charter97.org), was interrogated in Minsk on 1 July about a comment posted on the site. It was the fourth time she has been interrogated since March.
"The authorities are stepping up the tension by increasing the frequency of interrogations, confiscation of material and legislative initiatives that limit online free expression," Reporters Without Borders said. "They are trying to reinforce their control over the Internet as they already have for other media."
The press freedom organisation added: "The intimidation attempts, which have been mounting in the run-up to a presidential election due to be held in the coming months, must be brought to an end to permit the criticism and pluralistic debate that are necessary for any free election."
The comment that prompted Radzina's latest interrogation voiced support for Soviet-Afghan war veterans who refused the jubilee medals issued by President Alexander Lukashenko. The computers and equipment that were seized from the Charter '97 office in March in connection with an earlier case have never been returned (http://en.rsf.org/belarus-journalists-emails-probed-charter-29-04-2010,37233.html).
Decree No. 60 "On measures for improving use of the national Internet network," issued last February, meanwhile took effect on 1 July. It establishes extensive control over Internet content and access, and requires Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to register with the communication ministry and provide technical details about online information resources, networks and systems.
The decree also requires ISPs to identify all the devices (including computers and mobile phones) that are being used to connect to the Internet. The aim of this provision is clearly to allow the government to control online access.
At the same time, anyone going online in an Internet cafe or using a shared connection (for example, in an apartment building) now has to identify themselves, while a record of all online connections will have to be kept for a year. All these measures will inevitably discourage people from visiting independent and opposition websites.
The decree also creates an "analytic centre" attached to the president's office that will be tasked with monitoring content before it is put online - clearly establishing censorship at the highest level of government.
Every request by this centre for a website's closure must now be carried out by the ISP concerned within 24 Hours.
Regulations currently being drafted by the government and expected to be enacted on 1 September envisage a filtering system for controlling access to websites that are considered dangerous, including "extremist" sites and sites linked to pornography, violence and trafficking in arms, drugs or human beings. If banned by the communication ministry, such sites will be rendered inaccessible from state agencies, state companies and Internet cafes. ISPs could also render them inaccessible for other Internet users (at their request).
Vilejka.org, a news website based in the town of Vileyka, has been blocked as a result of a police investigation into comments posted on the site. Police arrested one of the site's users, Mikalay Susla, on 1 July on suspicion of posting one of the insulting comments about the principal of the town's high school. Susla told Reporters Without Borders he thought the site had been blocked because of criticism of local and national policies, and that the crackdown was linked with the fact that Decree No. 60 had just come into effect.
Nine members of the National Bolshevik Party (Nazbol) meanwhile staged an unauthorised demonstration on Freedom Square in Minsk on 23 June, waving placards and wearing T-shirts with the words "Internet Freedom." They were all arrested and convicted of violating procedures for holding demonstrations. Leader Yawhen Kontush was fined 875,000 roubles (236 euros). The others were fined 175,000 roubles (47 euros) each.