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Government creates working group to restrict online free expression

(RSF/IFEX) - Reporters Without Borders has voiced concern about deputy information minister Alyaksandr Slabadchuk's announcement on 20 August 2007 that a working group is being set up to look at the "Internet's legal regulation." The announcement came two weeks after President Alexander Lukashenko threatened to put an end to "anarchy" on the Internet.

"We are alarmed that the authorities have decided to pursue their preparations to restrict online free expression", the press freedom organisation said. "The Internet is one of the few spaces where Belarusians can be free. The fact that China is being cited as an example shows how repressive these plans are."

Slabadchuk acknowledged that existing civil and criminal law provisions already apply to the Internet, but he defended the working group's creation on the grounds that it was hard to identify those responsible for online violations and that the media law did not apply to Internet activity.

"This is why, as it is not banned by His Majesty the Law, you can write anything you like on the Internet," he told the Interfax news agency. He claimed that the new regulations would not restrict freedom, but he went on to cite how the Internet is controlled in China, where at least 50 Internet users are currently imprisoned.

Andrei Bastunets, deputy chairman of the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ), told Reporters Without Borders the government could include these new restrictions in a law for the protection of information that is to come before parliament in the autumn or in a new version of the media law.

"The aim of Internet regulation is to shut Belarus behind a legal and technological fence," Bastunets said. "It is obviously impossible to close down all the websites overnight. But they can restrict the part of the Internet available to Belarusians and establish the necessary conditions for targeted prosecutions against Internet users."

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