Battlefield internet: Belarusian civil society active despite censorship

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By Pavel P Antonov for APCNews

MINSK, Belarus, 02 April 2008

Zelyonaya Set’s headquarters are no different from any other non governmental organisation (NGO) office in Central and Eastern Europe. Six desks crammed with leaflets; a simple bookshelf on the side, packed with titles in English, Russian and Belarusian, and the inevitable knot of network cables on the floor. Still, something is a little different here: a strange platform, like a podium, is the stage on which two women exchange brief observations. Facing each other, each behind their respective desk, staring into their flat desktop screens, Irina Sukhy and Tatyana Novikova seem to be concentrated on a challenging project.

“Indeed,” explains Irina, “we are setting up an online network for environmental NGOs in Belarus.” The purpose is quite straightforward: to help NGOs in this country of 10 million to join efforts and network, so that they can influence and control decision making.

A mother of two, in her forties today, Irina has been a part of the green movement since 1990. As a co-founder of Eco Home since 1996, one of the strongest groups in the country, and as an international consultant, she knows civil society and nature protection in Belarus in and out. As she will reveal later in the day, there are between fifteen and twenty active environmental NGOs that Zelyonaya Set – or Green Network – envisions to connect together. The project has been inspired by the success of electronic civil society networks in Central and Eastern Europe and the Association for Progressive Communications’ Internet Rights Charter, Irina emphasizes.

A podium in the theatre

The theatrical setup in Zelyonaya Set’s office makes the action and dialogue appear dramatic and somewhat surrealistic. Indeed, the current reality in the country, dubbed Europe’s last dictatorship, is not exactly favourable to civil society expression, let alone networking. Having established almost complete state control over social, political, economic and mass media activity, the administration of President Alexander Lukashenka is moving to take a fierce grip over the one remaining free source of information and communication: the internet.

In August of 2007, Lukashenka, quoted by the local news agency BelTa, announced that the internet was full of sites “hostile to Belarus” and a law was needed to prevent that.

His government was quick to act. In February 2008, Information minister Uladzimir Rusakevich declared that a special inter-departmental committee had already started preparations for drafting a Belarusian law regulating the use of the internet, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported.

Studying other countries legislations would be the committee’s first step, Rusakevich was quoted as saying. International know-how seems abundant in the matter: on Online Free Expression Day, March 12, Reporters Without Borders, known by its French acronym RSF, listed fifteen countries as the world’s “Internet Enemies”, among which we find Belarus. [1]

RSF observed that with Lukashenka’s initiatives, internet control has entered a new phase: that of enclosing the country behind a legal technological barrier. The state measures include exposing any user of communications technology to criminal proceedings if operating without restrictive licenses or if caught exchanging what Belarus coins as “inappropriate” messages.

On the podium in Zelyonaya Set’s office, Irina Sukhy does not seem disheartened by the government’s intentions. “No matter what they do they simply cannot control everything [online],” she says with a smile. It maybe exactly this relaxed attitude and the calmness in her grey-blue eyes under the short blond hair, that makes disguise the rebellious sparkle and make it possible for her to do survive and press on with what she thinks is right. They are the KGB. The abbreviation sounds unmistakably familiar – as many other things in Belarus, the secret police has preserved its name and methods since Soviet times. Just in the past month her involvement with anti-nuclear campaigning has got Irina into several meetings with KGB officers. “As long as we are just meeting and talking, it is not so scary,” she notes philosophically.

Like many who lived under authoritarian state communism or other oppressive regimes, Irina knows that understanding the system from the inside makes it possible to outsmart it. “The easiest way to protect yourself is to talk openly about your meetings with KGB. The more people learn what is going on, the better and safer it gets,” Irina explains. For this, internet is of great help.

Despite high connectivity prices and state control, the net has become an inseparable part of life for NGOs in Belarus. “I don’t know any active organisation which does not use the internet. There are groups, especially in smaller towns or villages, who may not have the necessary skills. But everyone is online,” Irina stresses. A report by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development estimates that 56 percent of Belarusians use internet resources. [2]

Other proofs of strategic use of the internet by civil society in Belarus

Since the 2006 presidential elections, blogs have gained in popularity in this country, niched between Russia, the Baltic States and Poland. Back then, they were used by protesting students to mobilise support and inform the public about midnight arrests carried out by the police.

The government has released, in February 2008, writer and political activist Andrei Klimau. Arrested in April 2007, Klimau was sentenced in August to two years in prison for posting an article that accused Lukashenka of involvement in the murder of politician Viktar Hanchar.

Against the backdrop of censorship and limitation attempts, e-networking has already become a powerful civil society instrument. Irina recalls the online campaign against mismanagement of Europe’s last remaining primeval forest, the Belovezhskaya Pushcha National Park. Since 2001 local activists went online publicising the violations on a designated web site. Authorities originally attempted to shut down the website, but after it picked up in visibility and reached the international community, they became much more cautious and, even going as far as acting to protect the forest, she confirms.

This and other cases proved that achieving change in Belarus is not out of question when internet is properly used. But the largest hope for civil society lies in the courage and energy of people to work for change. As Irina formulated it: “Everybody knows about the control [over the internet] – but we simply do not care!”

[1] There are 15 countries in this year’s Reporters Without Borders list of “Internet Enemies” – Belarus, Burma, China, Cuba, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Vietnam and Zimbabwe. There were only 13 in 2007. The two new additions to the traditional censors are both to be found in sub-Saharan Africa: Zimbabwe and Ethiopia. For more information: http://www.rsf.org/article.php3?id_article=26086

[2] Reference: 2008. United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. Information Economy Report 2007-2008. Science and technology for development: the new paradigm of ICT. http://www.unctad.org/en/docs/sdteecb20071_en.pdf

(END/2008)

Internet Rights Charter

Thanks to BlueLink, APC’s member in Bulgaria, there’s now a Russian version of the internet rights charter available. It’s good to know that it’s being used as an essential tool in Belarus.

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