Belarusian authorities have been censoring online content and disrupting internet access in response to the ongoing mass protests. As the third week of post-election protests are coming to an end, protesters continue to demand fair presidential elections and justice for the demonstrators who have faced police brutality during the peaceful protests. Human Rights Watch said the blocking of internet appeared as an attempt to silence the spread of information on the protests and the police brutality incidents.
The wave of nationwide protests have been going on in Belarus since the presidential elections resulted on August 9, 2020, where “Europe’s last dictator” Alexander Lukashenko, who has led the country since 1994, declared to have won 80% of the votes -as opposed to the opposition presidential candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya who claimed to have won by 60 to 70%. The results have been broadly contested and opposed by protesters and external parties, with allegations of widespread electoral fraud. On the first night of mass protests, police used rubber bullets, water cannons, stun grenades, and arrested around 3,000 protesters.
From the morning of elections on August 9, as the polls opened in Belarus, multiple journalists confirmed significant disruptions to WiFi, LAN, and mobile data networks. Until August 12, access to internet in Belarus was disrupted for a total of 61 hours, permitting only 2G network accesses to the internet, text messages, and phone calls. First websites blocked included Golos, a grassroots platform including alternative vote counting systems, Zubr.in, another grassroots platform where users submit reports of electoral fraud, and Naviny and Tut.By, the country’s two largest independent news sources. Youtube, Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Whatsapp were amongst social media platforms and search engines that suffered access issues.
Belarusian authorities said the disruption was caused by a foreign massive cyber-attack, but data rights groups and independent cybersecurity experts said analysis of internet activity attributed the disruptions to government interference.
Once internet access was restored, and reports on police brutality against peaceful protesters started circulating online, protests grew even bigger – leading to tens of thousands of people to gather in Minsk for the biggest protests in Belarus’s history.
On August 14, protesters at the Independence Square in Minsk were unable to access mobile internet. On August 21, Tut.by reported that the Information Ministry blocked access to more that 70 websites. The blocked sources have been initiatives concerned with vote-counting, human rights organisations advocating for fair elections, and websites of Lukashenka’s rivals.
On August 23, as over 100,000 protesters gathered in Minsk, access to mobile internet was disrupted for over three hours as protesters approached the presidential palace. On August 26, mobile internet was once again disrupted in Minsk for an hour, the same hour arrests took place at a protest in the city center.
Despite these disruptions and restrictions making most of the internet inaccessible, these attempts have failed to prevent protesters from organising, mobilising, and sharing information online. Journalists and activists advised protesters to organise via the messaging app Telegram. Human rights activist Yana Soboleva said, “They didn’t manage to turn off Telegram and everything people filmed on the street went through there.”
NEXTA, a live telegram channel run by 22-year old Stephan Putilo and based in Warsaw, expanded its user base from 341,000 subscribers to over 2 million subscribers in the duration of the protests. NEXTA has been pivotal in updating and organising its 2 million subscribers, whether it is spreading directions to protesters, telling people where to meet, and providing tips on how to deal with the traffic police; or basic practicalities concerning staying hydrated and taking raincoats. Putilo has been put on the international wanted list by Belarusian authorities, and is facing up to 15 years of imprisonment.
Belarusians also resorted to virtual private networks (VPN) to avoid censorship, indicated by a spike in VPN usage on Apple’s App Store and Android during the shutdown.
Protests and brutalities are still going on in Belarus, and internet connectivity and access remain spotty. The shutdown of internet, which at the same time disrupted services such as digital banking, taxis, and shopping, have been estimated to cost the country more that $56m per day in lost economic activity according to Netblocks, an advocacy group monitoring shortages.
Regarding this loss to Belarus’s economy as a result of attempts to stop protesters from coordinating via internet, Mikhail Kilmarev, executive director of the Russian-based Internet Protection Society, said, “It shows you that Lukashenko’s regime doesn’t care at all about its own people and its own economy.”
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