Identifying government units or agencies rather than entire governments as Enemies of the Internet allows us to draw attention to the schizophrenic attitude towards online freedoms that prevails in in some countries, RWB say in their report released on World Day Against Cyber-Censorship (March, 12).
‘Natalia Radzina of Charter97, a Belarusian news website whose criticism of the government is often censored, was attending an OSCE-organized conference in Vienna on the Internet and media freedom in February 2013 when she ran into someone she would rather not have seen: a member of the Operations and Analysis Centre, a Belarusian government unit that coordinates Internet surveillance and censorship. It is entities like this, little known but often at the heart of surveillance and censorship systems in many countries, that Reporters Without Borders is spotlighting in this year’s report,’ RWB stress.
The NSA and GCHQ, Ethiopia’s Information Network Security Agency, Saudi Arabia’s Internet Services Unit, Belarus’ Operations and Analysis Centre, Russia’s FSB and Sudan’s National Intelligence and Security Service are all security agencies that have gone far beyond their core duties by censoring or spying on journalists and other information providers, the report says.
The Internet is the main bastion of freedom of information in Belarus, where censorship and self-censorship are the rule among traditional news outlets. Since 2008, the authorities have had an armoury of technological, administrative and legal weapons at their disposal to exert their control over the Web, Reporters Without Borders emphasize.
The Operations and Analysis Centre (OAC) was established in 2008 and reports directly to President Aliaksandr Lukashenka. It ensures data collected by Internet service providers complies with the law. The centre can impose sanctions if any are required. More generally, it is responsible for administering the national domain .by and coordinates Internet surveillance operations. Surveillance is carried out by several government agencies including the State Control Committee, the State Telecommunications Inspection and the Public Prosecutor’s Office. The ministry of information and information technology completes the repressive regulatory apparatus of used by the Belarus government.
Faced with the rapid development of information technology, the authorities in the first instance used existing legislation to penalise libel, defamation of the president and insults including those directed at the president or anyone in an official position. This legislation does not refer specifically to cyberspace, but allegations of discrediting the republic and hooliganism are among those most frequently made against netizens.
It was not until 2008 that legislation specifically aimed at online information made its appearance. A series of media laws were passed in 2008 and entered into force in February 2009, severely undermining Internet freedom. News sites were classified as media outlets and had to register in order to have legal status. Any that received more than 30 percent of the funding from abroad were banned from receiving this official stamp of approval, necessary to be able to publish any foreign content. The cabinet was meant to set out the criteria allowing a website to be classified as a news outlet, but no decisions have yet been made in this regard.
The real legislative turning point came in 2009 with the enactment of Decree 60, “on measures for improving use of the national Internet network”, which boosted control over the Internet. It introduced the Russian SORM surveillance system, requiring ISPs to pay for its installation and to keep the harvested data for a year.
Internet service providers must block access to any illegal site or content, such as those containing pornography or inciting violence, without the need for a court order. To do so, they must to refer to two lists of sites that are banned from being accessed from official institutions or Internet cafes. One is publicly available but empty, the other is accessible only by ISPs and the authorities themselves.
In February last year, the authorities announced that the second list contained 119 sites, including the online newspapers charter97.org and belaruspartisan.org, and the websites of the Belarus Association of Journalists and the Human Rights Centre “Viasna”.
www.belsat.eu/en, via RWB