The lower house of Belarus’s parliament has passed amendments to the Law on Mass Activities in the Republic of Belarus that specifically ban demonstrations organized through the Internet.
«An amendment has been added about the organization of unsanctioned gatherings of citizens with the aid of, among other things, social networks of the Internet,» deputy Anatol Hlaz, deputy chairman of the Committee on Human Rights, National Relations, and the Media, told a Minsk press conference.
The controversial measure was passed immediately in two readings during a closed legislative session on October 4. Asked why the session was closed, Hlaz merely stated, «It is the right of the chamber to hold both closed and open sessions.»
The original bill as submitted earlier this summer by the government would have outlawed any form of «activity or inactivity organized for the public expression of one’s views.»
However, Hlaz told a press conference in Minsk that the reference to «inactivity» had been dropped in the measure adopted by parliament. The text of the new version has not been made public.
Response To ‘Silent’ Protests
The draft law was submitted in response to a national wave of protests in which demonstrators expressed their discontent through actions like clapping their hands or setting the alarms on their mobile phones to ring at an agreed-upon time.
The protests were provoked by the reelection of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka in what was widely believed to be a rigged election in December 2010, a brutal postelection crackdown on the opposition, and a severe economic crisis that is rapidly spiraling out of control.
Under the new law, unsanctioned gatherings of citizens organized via the Internet would be banned. Also, organizers are banned from announcing any gathering before it has been sanctioned by the government.
Further, people who earlier organized outlawed demonstrations or have been warned about doing so in the previous 12 months by the authorities are banned from organizing new demonstrations.
The new law also expands the list of places where demonstrations are not allowed, including «within 100 meters of an educational establishment.»
Fear Of Inactivity
Alyaksandr Dabravolski, of the opposition United Civic Party, told RFE/RL’s Belarus Service that the demonstrations would likely continue in one form or another.
«Maybe they’ll take on other forms; maybe they’ll be organized by other people. But the issue is not that someone had the idea to conduct a protest and that’s why it happened. The issue is that people are dissatisfied,» Dabravolski said.
«It has to be understood that a government that claims to reflect the people’s interest and is afraid even of ‘inactivity’ on the part of the people — organized inactivity — such a government’s days are probably numbered.»
The bill must now be approved by the upper chamber of parliament, which is expected to take up the measure on October 21.
Belarusian media reported that on October 2 Minsk police warned a group of joggers in a central park that they could be arrested for participating in an unsanctioned event.
The runners were part of a group called Sobriety — It’s Easy! that was organized online and holds group jogging outings every Sunday to promote healthy living. According to «Belarusian Partisan,» police told the joggers, «If you start any action, you will be arrested.»
written by Robert Coalson in Prague on the basis of reporting from Minsk by RFE/RL’s Belarus Service