When the Belarusian activist Dzianis Dzianisau was detained for nearly two months on charges of “taking part in manifestations which disturb public order”, the Belarusian blogsphere successfully organized an online (and offline) campaign to raise the bail (15.500.000 Belarusian roubles or $7,300) and got the young political prisoner out of jail. According to Belarusian blogger and activist Zmieter Soltan (listen below to our podcast interview with Zmieter), the campaign involved several Belarusian online communities on LiveJournal: “There were multiple posts with photos of Dzianis, updates on the investigation of his case, on the likely charges which would be put against him, photos of his mother and girlfriend, reports about the event when he was arrested, regular updates on the money raised to date, accounts from visits to the prison.”
The most recent episode of the Belarusian cyberactivism is much more creative and cynical. This time, it came in the form of birthday gift to the country's president, Alexander Lukashenko, after he complained about the anarchy of the Internet. During a visit to the state-owned newspaper Sovietskaya Bielorussiya, President Lukashenko announced his plan to tighten restrictions on Internet and said: “It is time to stop the anarchy on the Internet. We cannot allow this great technological achievement of man to be turned into an information garbage heap.”
The use of the Internet is already restricted in Belarus. According to the OpenNet Initiative report on internet filtering in Belarus, most cybercafés require users to show identification and keep the logs of their online activity. In reaction to Lukashenko’s comments, Belarusian activists from the online community “Third Way” have joined forces and launched the LuNet campaign to raise awareness about the threats to the online free speech that a new media law presently in the works could represent. The LuNet campaign comprises the following: the LuTube video-sharing website, LuJournal blogging platform, Lundex search engine, and a web portal tut.lu.
In this interview with Pavel Marosau of LuNet, we talk about the campaign, Belarusian cyberactivism and the threats to the freedom of online expression in Belarus.
Sami Ben Gharbia: In an interview reported by Reuters, President Alexander Lukashenko said: “It is time to stop the anarchy on the Internet. We cannot allow this great technological achievement of man to be turned into an information garbage heap“. What measures has he taken to stop “the anarchy on the Internet”?
Pavel Marosau: President Lukashenka said that about anarchy in internet during the meeting with his loyal journalists from Sovietskaya Belorussia propaganda newspaper. Despite the fact that he controls all TV, FM and wire radio stations, and most of newspapers, he is still not satisfied. He views the Internet as threat, as neither he nor his men have succeeded in putting the Internet under total control. I think he can't fully understand what the Internet is, as he's a man with old Soviet mentality. And of course, he's afraid of what he can't understand.
His advisors proposed him several ways “to stop anarchy on the internet”. The most evident and dangerous for us is adopting a new law on media in his “pocket” parliament which would oblige all owners of “harmful” websites to register them thus constraining freedom of its owners and authors by equaling websites and press. It would make the repressions and persecutions of websites’ owners and authors much easier.
Belarusian authorities have been combating for years with unwanted opinions in internet by persecuting specific people. However, they used some very exotic punitive articles and methods of punishments and it was never done on a regular basis. For instance, me together with my colleagues, Andrei Abozau and Aleg Minich, are still persecuted for slandering Lukashenka by cartoons (www.multclub.org) which is why we have to live abroad at the moment. In August 2007 Andrei Klimau, a notorious Belarusian dissident, was found guilty of calling for overthrowing Lukashenka's regime and sentenced to 2 years of prison for his publication in internet. A famous and harsh critic of Lukashenka, Andrei Suzdaltsev (www.politoboz.com) was possibly poisoned, which resulted in diabetes and partial eyesight loss. Owners of United Civil Party of Belarus website were sued by one Belarusian official claiming damage to his reputation because of an article the website had published accusing his son of abuse of law. As you can see Belarusian authorities are quite creative in persecuting internet dissidents. However, all that methods are no longer enough for them so they need an instrument of mass repressions.
It would be reasonable to put another example of Belarusian civic associations’ liberties cut. Before presidential elections in 2006 Belarusian parliament adopted a law which severely increased punishment for being a member of so called “unregistered organizations”. Both in that time and now most of oppositional organizations are not registered as the government simply doesn't want to register them. Just after the adoption of law a campaign against independent observers, youth activists, and politicians was unleashed. People were sentenced to up to two years terms of imprisonment. Belarusian internet community can face the same. This is why we are protesting so actively against those punitive measures inspired by Lukashnka.
Sami: Why did you choose Lukashenko's birthday to launch LuNet?
Pavel: We have chosen that date because Lukashenka is the main initiator and inspirer of repressions against independent internet in Belarus. It would have been just if Lukashenka experienced by himself all amenities of tightly-controlled, no alternative information environment, which is Lunet as we understand it. That's why we gave him Lunet as a birthday present. The Lunet campaign was firstly designed as a small action of protest against regime's repressions toward internet. However, it gained much attention and support in internet community with many different people joining it. That's why we decided to turn it into a constant action with new undertakings in support of independent internet in Belarus appearing all the time.
Sami: Are social networking websites like YouTube and LiveJournal being targeted by censorship? If no, why did you choose them as example to build this funny and original Lukashenko-friendly customized version of Internet? And apart from YouTube and LiveJournal, you've also built a Lundex and tut.lu. What are these websites?
Pavel: Challenges our digital century provides are not easy for Belarusian regime. The authority representatives as I said can't completely understand the essence of internet as their mentality is still of that of a Soviet man. That is why they are examining closely (as they admitted themselves) experience of other states repressive toward internet, such as China and Iran. Especially since Lukashenka has got good relations with them and large arms supply contracts. But I'll repeat it one more time: it is much easier for the regime to put to jail or intimidate certain author of internet publication, to hack or restrict access to a certain website than to introduce a large-scale system of content filtration, especially if it is intended to be applied to such huge communities as Youtube or Livejournal. We have chosen them as well as Yandex search engine and tut.by, the most popular Belarusian web-portal, because they are very popular among Belarusian audience. Belarusians have become attached to them. And, by showing in a satirical and a little bit hypertrophied form what model of internet Lukashenka is about to introduce, what changes they may face if government attempts to put internet under control, we wanted to raise awareness of Belarusian internet users. There's a good saying: “The only thing evil needs for a complete triumph is good people doing nothing”. We wanted other Belarusians and our colleges from abroad to stand for our freedoms and we are sure that it will help to protect them.
Sami: Can you tell us more about the Internet-community “Third Way” and the Bеlarusian cyberactivism, did you also launched other spectacular campaigns like Lunet? Are you providing circumvention tools to the Belarusian internet users? And what is the relationship between activists and the belerussian blogsphere?
Pavel: Third Way internet community (www.3dway.org) is a group of young Belarusians and their colleagues from abroad living in 9 different countries, whose mission is to transform Belarus into a successful and able to compete country with the priority of liberal values, open society, and democratic civil system. We work together by actively using modern web technologies in order to provide Belarusian with information alternative to state propaganda, to look for and involve into cyberactivism talented Belarusian from different countries of the world, to educate them, to create a network of partnership and cooperation with their help, to present our country abroad, and to lobby not Lukashenka regime's interests but those of Belarusian society.
We are related to Belarusian cyberactivists from the very beginning, we are a part of them, and we are helping each other all the time. Most of Belarusian cyberactivists are concentrated in Belarusian blogsphere, as well as in such projects as Pozirk, Pavetra, BelMov, Moladz.org, Gart, Initsiativa, Bunt… They are not only active in internet but also in offline where they conduct flash mobs and actions of protest. Since 2005 we have conducted various internet campaigns together with Belarusian cyberactivists communities and youth initiatives: protection of Minsk history (against renaming streets) in 2005 and Hrodna (against demolition of historical center) in 2007, in support of Actions of Solidarity in 2005 and Belarusian satirists in 2006, for freedom of Belarusian political prisoners in 2006. Since May 2007 we have been acting together in the framework of Together For Freedom! Manifesto (www.peremen.info). Both activists of Belarusian NGOs and internet activists are engaged in these campaigns. The Third Way is providing coordination and technical support of these enterprises. As for security measures for Belarusian cyberactivists, we are actively propagating Skype as a convenient and multi-purpose tool. Also we have conducted several workshops on information security for Belarusian civic activists together with our Ukrainian partners and shared our own experience. But progress goes on and Skype is not that safe nowadays so in 2008 we are going to introduce new solutions in the sphere of internet security to our Belarusian partners. The Third Way community is in friends with Belarusian blogsphere from the moment of its coming into life, many notorious bloggers are in friends with us and are active members of our internet community. We have good relations and close cooperation with Pozirk blogging project, Minsk_by blog-community.
Sami: How do you assess the the general filtering and censorship situation in your country ?
Pavel: There is a system of content filtering in Belarus. This system based on Chinese technologies was installed into state internet provider Beltelecom's equipment not a long time ago. However, the main purpose of this system is not preventing people from accessing free information but a surveillance for Belarusian internet users. Limiting access to certain websites is not done on a regular basis. During elections, referendums, and other occasions crucially important for the authorities, Belarusian opposition websites are being temporally blocked for Belarusian users, they are hacked and put under some other destructive actions.
Sami: What was the reaction of the Belarusian regime to the Lunet campaign?
Pavel: I think they didn't knew how to react to that internet performance. That is why they have chosen to keep silence. Nevertheless the authorities are continuing preparation of new repressive laws justifying it by “protection of common people's interests”, and are also likely to be preparing show trials against Belarusian cyberactivists.
Sami: What is your next move?
Pavel: We would like to cover this topic during all period the new law on media is being discussed and adopted. Not only in a satirical form of LuNet though we have some fresh ideas in that sphere as well. We would like to cooperate with Belarusian politicians and public figures in order to motivate them to address global community so it would influence the situation with freedom of internet in Belarus. We would like to show some examples of censorship and restrictions of internet in other countries to Belarusian users so they would completely understand what exactly is waiting for them. More than that, we are enforcing cooperation and solidarity between social and political internet projects and blogsphere in Belarus. In the framework of Time to Win civil activists alliance we provide safe and free hosting in Germany and USA to new internet projects on social and political issues, we consult and help new initiatives to make their own websites. Together with our German partners we are preparing new tools of safe communication, anonymization, and filters-avoiding for Belarusian cyberactivists.