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Report Highlights Belarus’s ‘Repressive’ Campaign Against Internet Freedom

Human rights watchdog Freedom House says global Internet freedom has declined dramatically in Belarus, where last year’s disputed presidential election led the authorities to repeatedly restrict access to the Internet, increase social media surveillance, and detain and use “deadly force” against online activists.

According to the report Freedom on the Net 2021, published by Washington-based Freedom House on September 21, the “repressive campaign” by authorities against Internet liberty continued into this year, leading to a seven-point decline in the country’s Internet freedom — a drop surpassed only by Burma.

Mass protests broke out across Belarus against alleged election fraud after the official results of a August 2020 vote handed authoritarian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka a sixth term in office.

The protest movement was met with a brutal crackdown on demonstrators and the opposition from Lukashenka’s government, with hundreds of people being prosecuted and jailed.

The opposition and the West have refused to recognize the results and called for a new, independently monitored vote.

Lukashenka’s postelection crackdown included the closure of the offices and blocking of the websites of TUT.by and Nasha Niva, two popular independent media outlets in the country, and the forced diversion in May of a Ryanair flight to Minsk to arrest opposition blogger Raman Pratasevich, the former editor in chief of the popular NEXTA channel on the Telegram messaging platform.

Freedom on the Net is an annual report of human rights in the digital sphere. This year’s report assesses Internet access developments in 70 countries during the period spanning from June 2020 to May 2021.

Overall, the report says global Internet freedom declined for the 11th consecutive year, with the greatest deterioration being documented in Burma, followed by Belarus and Uganda.

‘Draconian Prison Terms’

China ranked as the worst environment for Internet freedom for the seventh year in a row, with the authorities imposing “draconian prison terms for online dissent, independent reporting, and mundane daily communications.”

In the United States, “false, misleading, and manipulated information continued to proliferate online, affecting public acceptance of the 2020 presidential election results.” That led to the country’s score declining for the fifth consecutive year.

Officials in at least 48 countries have pursued new rules for tech companies on content, data, and competition to “subdue free expression and gain greater access to private data,” according to Freedom House.

Authorities suspended Internet access in at least 20 countries, and 21 states blocked access to social media platforms, while authorities in at least 45 countries are “suspected of obtaining sophisticated spyware or data-extraction technology from private vendors.”

Along with Belarus, Freedom House defines Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Russia, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, and Iran as being “not free” countries regarding their level of the Internet freedom.

Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan are described as “partly free,” while Georgia, Armenia, Serbia, and Hungary are deemed to be “free.”

‘Labyrinth Of Regulations’

In Russia, Freedom House says the government “added to the labyrinth of regulations that international tech companies must navigate in the country.”

It cited a January law introducing new fines for websites and platforms that fail to remove content the state deems “illegal,” while legislation in February reinforced platforms’ obligations to identify and remove banned content and required them to coordinate with the federal regulator regarding content moderation decisions.

Iran was among governments that imposed “especially egregious sentences” against people arrested or convicted for their online speech.

Ruhollah Zam, the manager of the popular Telegram channel Amadnews, was executed in December 2020 after he was accused of inciting violence during Iran’s 2017 protests.

Internet users faced physical attacks in retribution for their online activities in dozens of countries, including in Azerbaijan, where one of them was beaten and forced to apologize by local police in January for Facebook posts in which he criticized local government officials.

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