Belarusians who subscribe to social media channels deemed “extremist” could face up to seven years in prison under new proposals published by authorities on Wednesday.
Social media channels such as Telegram Messenger were widely used during the mass protests against President Alexander Lukashenko last year, both to coordinate demonstrations and to share footage of violent police action.
Some of the most well-known Telegram channels, including the NEXTA news outlet, were classified as “extremist” after the protests began. NEXTA has about 1 million subscribers, while the TUT.BY news portal’s Telegram channel, which was shut down by the authorities, has 500,000.
The Belarusian Directorate for Fighting Organized Crime said in a statement that “subscribers of extremist Telegram channels and chats will be held criminally liable as members of an extremist group.”
More than a hundred Telegram channels and chats have been recognized as extremist in Belarus. Anyone reposting their content can already be fined or detained for up to 30 days.
Protests erupted after last year’s presidential election, which Lukashenko’s opponents say was rigged to keep the veteran leader in power.
Thousands were detained and human rights activists say more than 800 are jailed as political prisoners since the protests.
Authorities have recently launched retaliation against citizens who disagree online. Hundreds were detained and faced prison sentences for making derogatory remarks about a KGB officer killed in a shooting in Minsk last month.
“Belarus’ independent media has been destroyed, many journalists have been imprisoned, websites have been blocked,” wrote Svyatlana Sikhnoushskaya, the opposition figure in exile, on Twitter.
“Now the regime has threatened criminal persecution and up to 7 years in prison for subscribing to “extremist” Telegram channels, including free media. Truth is banned in Belarus. ”
(Written by Matthias Williams; Editing by Gareth Jones)