Belarus classifies social media channels as ‘extremist’

Those who subscribe to three of the most popular opposition social media channels can face up to seven years in prison.

The Belarusian Interior Ministry has classified three of the country’s most popular opposition social media channels as “extremist” organizations, meaning that people can face up to seven years in prison for subscribing.

Social media channels such as Telegram Messenger were widely used during massive street protests against President Alexander Lukashenko last year to coordinate demonstrations and share images of a violent police crackdown.

“The Interior Ministry has made the decision to recognize a group of citizens who carry out extremist activities through the Telegram channels NEXTA, NEXTA-Live and LUXTA, an extremist organization and that prohibits their activities,” the ministry said in a released on Friday.

The NEXTA news outlet, run by a Belarusian exile in Poland, has three channels on Telegram, including NEXTA Live, which has nearly a million subscribers in a country of 9.5 million.

Previously, anyone who republished NEXTA material risked a fine or arrest for 30 days. But the new classification means that subscribers could be prosecuted for participating in an “extremist” organization and jailed for up to seven years.

“1.4 million more extremists appeared in Belarus today,” NEXTA wrote in a tweet. “The Ministry of the Interior recognized the telegram channels NEXTA, NEXTA Live and LUXTA as ‘extremist formations’. This means that criminal cases can be opened against creators, administrators and subscribers in #Bielorrusia. “

Deutsche Welle blocked

Meanwhile, on Friday, Germany criticized what it called Belarus’ blocking of the news website of German public broadcaster Deutsche Welle, urging Minsk to restore access “immediately”.

The German ambassador in Minsk has taken the complaint to the Belarusian Foreign Ministry and demanded a reversal of the decision, a spokeswoman for the German Foreign Ministry said.

Deutsche Welle said in a statement that the Belarusian information ministry had blocked access to its online services.

The broadcaster said the Belarusian government had explained the move, which was also directed at other media outlets, by claiming that Deutsche Welle was publishing “extremist” content.

Deutsche Welle CEO Peter Limbourg called the allegations “absolutely ridiculous” in a statement.

The broadcaster said it had significantly expanded its offering in Belarus so that it “can cover civil society activities.”

Protests erupted last year after a presidential election that Lukashenko’s opponents said was blatantly rigged to keep the veteran leader in power.

Tens of thousands of people were detained and human rights activists say more than 800 people are now in jail as political prisoners since the protests.

The authorities have recently retaliated against citizens who express their disagreement online. Hundreds of people were arrested and face prison terms for making disrespectful comments about a KGB officer who was killed in a shooting in Minsk last month.

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