has been termed Europe’s last dictatorship
because of its long intolerance of dissent and press freedom. So accustomed is
the world to the clampdowns of President Aleksandr Lukashenko’s regime that
neither a recently issued decree on Internet access, which requires that providers
record users’ personal data, nor last week’s police
raids at a number of independent news offices, came as much of a surprise
to anyone. “Belarus—reliably
repressive” would be the country’s bumper sticker were press freedom groups to make
What is interesting is that a number of other Eurasian countries—notably
the current chair of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE)—are
adopting tactics very similar to those of Belarus
in order to curb critical media coverage, particularly on the Internet. Recent
increases in the numbers of online users in both countries have undoubtedly
contributed to authorities’ perceived need to control the Web.
have passed restrictive laws that equate Internet publications with traditional
media, making the former subject to the same repressive regulations as the
latter. Lukashenko signed his country's law in August
president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, signed similar legislation in July
2009. In the case of Belarus,
the law demands that all news media, including online publications, be approved
by the government. The Kazakh law expanded the definition of mass media to
include social networking sites, chat rooms, online forums, and personal Web
pages and blogs—giving state agencies broad authority to block or shut them
down. The vaguely worded law also allows for the blocking of international Web
sites if those are found in violation of Kazakh legislation.
Having passed the new restrictive laws, both Belarus and Kazakhstan created specialized
state agencies tasked with enforcing them.
Lukashenko signed a decree giving government agencies muscular authority to block access to online information deemed extremist.
The decree also requires all providers to register servers, personal computers, and
other “devices used to connect to the Internet,” and to collect the personal
details of Web surfers. The decree, ratified in February, will come into force
in July. Simultaneously, a new government agency that reports to the president—the
Operating and Analytical Center (OAC)—was created with the mandate to monitor
the online correspondence and activities of Belarusian citizens, including
their browsing history.
The OAC is intended to “protect information containing state
secrets of Belarus”
from “leaking through technical channels,” the independent news Web site Charter 97 reported. (Charter 97 is one of several news outlets raided by Minsk police last week in
apparent retaliation for its critical reporting. The news site issued a call for help on
Wednesday after authorities confiscated all eight newsroom computers, severely
hampering its work.)
the head of the main state communications regulator, Kuanyshbek Yesekeyev,
announced the creation of a new agency—the Service to React
to Computer Incidents. On March 1, Yesekeyev told Parliament that the
service has already started “a check on destructive Web sites.” He mentioned
the existence of “black lists” of “resources that have a destructive character”
but failed to clarify who was on those lists or how a site’s “destructive character”
would be determined, the local service of the U.S. government-funded Radio Free
Europe/Radio Liberty reported.
Without elaborating, Yesekeyev also said the new agency will
be countering “political extremism.” His statements led many Kazakh human rights
and press freedom groups to cry foul, fearing that such vague terminology will
be used to target critical political journalism, the independent regional news
Web site Ferghana reported.
When it comes to the Internet, Kazakh and Belarusian policies are disturbingly similar. But while Belarus
has been recognized as a repressive regime, Kazakhstan
has been rewarded with the stature of leading the OSCE, the region's leading human rights and security organization.
Since its assumption of the OSCE chairmanship in January, Kazakhstan’s press
freedom and human rights records have come under somewhat greater scrutiny. But
the international community has been too cautious in confronting Astana on journalist
in anti-press attacks, and politicized prosecutions
of the press.
It is time the international community recognizes Kazakhstan’s record,
demands demonstrable improvements from Astana, and ensures that the OSCE’s mission of promoting human
rights and democracy is not compromised by its leader.