#KeepItOn: Joint letter on keeping the internet open and secure during the presidential elections in Belarus 

Read in Belarusian or Russian.

 August 5, 2020 

Re: Internet access will ensure increased participation and transparency in Belarus presidential elections 

Your Excellency Alyaksandar Lukashenka

President of the Republic of Belarus 

Prospekt Pobeditelei 12

Minsk, Belarus

CC: Minister of Communications and Informatization of the Republic of Belarus Kаnstantsin Shulhan; Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Belarus, Uladzimir Makei; Chairperson of Belarus’ Central Election Commission, Lidziya Yarmoshyna; Head of The Operational and Analytical Center under the President of the Republic of Belarus, Andrei Pauliuchenka

We, the undersigned organizations, including members of the #KeepItOn coalition — a global network that unites over 220 organizations from 99 countries that work to end internet shutdowns globally — and other concerned organizations, write to urgently request that your office ensures the stability and openness of the internet and social media platforms before, during, and after the presidential elections in Belarus scheduled for August 9, 2020. We appeal to you, President Lukashenko, to ensure that the internet and all other communication channels are open, secure, and accessible throughout the election period in the Republic of Belarus. 

The internet plays a crucial role in allowing people to access information and remain informed about the election process. Access to the internet and social media platforms also allows people to actively participate in the voting process, engage in public discourse, and allows citizens to hold their elected leaders accountable, which are all important tenets of every democratic society. 

We write to express serious concern about reports of alleged mobile internet jamming in Belarus on June 19, 2020 aimed at dispersing protesters who were picketing around Independence Avenue in Minsk. There have also been reports of arbitrary arrests and detention of journalists working with various media outlets who were covering the protests. 

Aside from these recent reports, we have also been notified of increased human rights violations and harassment of journalists, human rights defenders, and opposition politicians ahead of the elections resulting in an atmosphere of fear and panic

We are seriously concerned about the lack of an open and active civic space in Belarus in the lead up to the elections and we appeal to you and your government to take urgent steps to end further human rights violations in Belarus. Upholding fundamental rights includes upholding the rights to freedom of expression, freedom of the press, freedom to inform and access to information, and preserving  the freedom of assembly is essential for every democratic society, including during elections. These rights must be guarded at all times. 

As organizations that believe in the power of the internet as an enabler of all other human rights, we are confident that access to the internet and social media platforms during the elections in Belarus will help foster transparent and fair outcomes for the upcoming presidential elections, by ensuring citizens’ active participation. 

We warmly acknowledge your April 2019 remarks as reported by BelTA, in which you underscored that the internet is the main source of information for the majority of people and condemned the use of internet shutdowns to silence people. You further called upon civil servants to work harder with the online community in order to improve the internet landscape in Belarus. 

We share in your sentiment that internet shutdowns harm diverse aspects of people’s lives and we call on you to commit to the remarks you made a year ago condemning internet shutdowns by pledging to keep the internet on throughout the election process in Belarus. 

Internet shutdowns harm human rights, disrupt emergency services, and harm economies 

Research shows that internet shutdowns and violence go hand in hand. Shutting down  the internet during a deadly pandemic would add fuel to the fire.  By disrupting the free flow of information, shutdowns exacerbate any existing tensions in the society and increase the likelihood of protests, as well as potential violence and human rights violations perpetrated by both state and non-state actors. In addition, without access to communication tools, journalists and media workers are unable to report on the election process. Although governments attempt to justify network disruptions for various reasons, in reality, internet shutdowns cut off access to vital and life-saving information, and emergency services, plunging whole communities into fear and confusion. 

Moreover, the technical means used to block access to information online often dangerously undermines the stability and resilience of the internet. Network disruptions also destabilize the internet’s power to support small business livelihoods and to drive economic development. 

Internet shutdowns contravene national and international laws 

Internet shutdowns violate fundamental human rights such as freedom of expression, access to information, and the right to peaceful assembly, among others guaranteed by national, regional, and international frameworks such as the Constitution of the Republic of Belarus, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which you ratified. 

The U.N. Human Rights Committee, the official interpreter of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), emphasizes in its General Comment No. 34 that restrictions on speech online must be strictly necessary and proportionate to achieve a legitimate purpose. Shutdowns, by contrast, disproportionately impact all users, and unnecessarily restrict access to information and emergency services communications during crucial moments. Shutdowns are neither necessary nor effective at achieving a legitimate aim, as they block the spread of information, contribute to confusion and disorder, and obstruct public safety. 

We use this medium to appeal to you to ensure that the people of Belarus have access to the internet and other digital communication tools to enable them enjoy these rights. 

We respectfully request that you use the important positions of your good offices to: 

  • Ensure that the internet, including social media and other digital communication platforms, remains open, accessible, and secure across Belarus throughout the elections. 
  • Order the release of all political prisoners and peaceful activists who are currently being held by the various security agencies in Belarus.
  • Refrain from further threats and verbal violence against journalists and ensure that there is no further physical violence against journalists by the security forces, including while covering demonstrations and elections, and allow journalists to cover official events safely;
  • Work in collaboration with the various internet service providers operating in Belarus to ensure that all persons have access to quality, secure, free, and open internet throughout the election period and thereafter
  • Order the various ISPs operating in the country to inform internet users of any disruptions and work around the clock to fix any identified disruptions likely to impact the quality of service they receive.
  • Uphold the fundamental human rights of the people of Belarus throughout the elections and thereafter

Please let us know if we can provide assistance on any of these matters. 

Sincerely, 

Access Now 

Advocacy Initiative for Development (AID)

African Freedom of Expression Exchange (AFEX)

Africa freedom of Information Centre (AFIC)

Africa Open Data and Internet Research Foundation (AODIRF)

AfroLeadership

Azerbaijan Internet Watch (AIW)

Centre for Media Studies and Peacebuilding (CEMESP)

Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ)

DefendDefenders (East Africa and the Horn of Africa)

Free Expression Myanmar (FEM)

Free Press Unlimited (FPU)

Human Constanta (Belarus)

International Press Centre (IPC)

Internet Protection Society (Russia)

Iraqi Network for Social Media (INSM)

L’Association Francophone pour les Droits de l’Homme (AFDH)

Liberia Information Technology Student Union 

Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA)

Media Institute of Southern Africa-Zimbabwe (MISA-Zimbabwe)

Media Rights Agenda (MRA)

Open Net (Korea)

Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI)

Paradigm Initiative

PEN America

Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF)

RosKomSvoboda (Russia)

Southeast Asia Freedom of Expression Network (SAFEnet)

Unwanted Witness Uganda

YODET

UBUNTEAM

Software Freedom Law Center, India

Villes et Communes Magazine

Беларускі ПЭН-цэнтр

Беларускі дакументацыйны цэнтр

Прававая іныціятыва

Таварыства абароны інтэрнэту (Россия)

Республиканская общественная молодежная организация “Гражданский форум”

РосКомСвабода (Россия)

Ініцыятыва Forb

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