No Dialogue Behind Bars. Open letter to international stakeholders related to participation in IGF.BY

Human Constanta
9 November 2023

On November 15th, Minsk will host the fifth Belarus Internet Governance Forum (IGF.BY 2023). Organizers optimistically state their vision

“Belarus IGF is the largest open platform in the country for discussing key aspects of internet development. The forum brings together representatives of the state, business, non-profit organizations, the technical and academic community, as well as ordinary internet users. <…> Anyone interested can participate in shaping the regional agenda for internet development.”

The event is primarily organized by The Forum has received backing from the Ministry of Communications and Informatization and the Ministry of Information. But the most notable is that the list of international partners for this event includes RIPE NCC, ICANN, and the Internet Governance Forum Support Association.

Given the current political climate in Belarus, which has affected both its citizens and major businesses, we do not intend to denounce national organizers of the event. Let us remind you that after the crackdown on the major independent online media TUT.BY, other related entities including also faced repressions.

However, we do raise questions towards international partners who have confirmed their participation and urge them to consider the broader implications of their involvement.

The grim reason why the Forum was not held from 2020 to 2023

The events pre, mid, and post presidential election 2020, widely recognized as fraudulent, marked the start of the largest political and human rights crisis in Belarusian modern history. Around 1500 people are recognized as political prisoners. More than 35000 have been subjected to arbitrary detention in degrading conditions. At least 5500 criminal cases have been initiated in connection with “mass riots” since the beginning of the electoral campaign. As of 1 July 2022,  11000 criminal cases were launched on “extremism-related” grounds. There have been at least 5000 allegations of torture and inhuman treatment, without a single criminal case initiated to investigate the reports.

In May 2021, 15 employees of TUT.BY were arrested and placed in a detention center. Authorities labeled TUT.BY and its social media accounts and messengers as extremist. In June 2022, the company “Tut by media”, which owned the portal, was declared an extremist organization, and its activities were banned. The TUT.BY case also involved the CEO of (LLC “Reliable Programs”), Sergey Povalishev, who was detained from May to September 2021 and announced his pardon in April 2022. The editor-in-chief, Marina Zolotova, and the company’s CEO, Lyudmila Chekina, remained in custody and were subsequently sentenced to 12 years of imprisonment each.

Currently, 34 journalists and media workers are imprisoned in Belarus.

No meaningful dialogue between stakeholders is possible amid the ongoing political crisis and widespread repression in Belarus

More than 923 non-profit organizations were liquidated or reported to undergo the procedure of liquidation including all independent human rights organizations. Journalists, human rights defenders, and activists continued to be detained or forced out of the country for fear of persecution. Human rights work has been outlawed in Belarus, as well as participating in civil society groups was criminalized as “working on behalf of unregistered or liquidated organizations”. Among the liquidated organizations and initiatives that were forced to leave Belarus are virtually all co-organizers, partners, and participants of previous IGFs from civil society.

In 2023, against the backdrop of a shattered civil society in the country, we see only three speakers representing a single non-governmental organization in the program.

The agenda of IGF.BY can not address significant issues of Internet freedom in Belarus nor meaningfully achieve the purpose and principles of the Internet Governance Forum

Since 2020, internet freedom in Belarus has been under siege. The government intensified its crackdown on online criticism, resulting in the blocking of dozens independent media outlets and categorizing online content from certain groups as either “extremist” or “terrorist”.

On the election day of August 9, 2020, Belarus saw a nationwide internet shutdown, which continued for 61 hours. This was not an isolated incident; local internet shutdowns had been occurring until December 2020 during significant pro-democracy protests.

While authorities restricted access to countless independent media, foreign news sites, and civil society resources, the majority of nonstate media were forced either to close or operate from outside Belarus. With the added backdrop of an ongoing political crisis and the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Belarusian government escalated its arbitrary arrests, targeting media workers, bloggers, and online activists. Many of those detained faced severe prison terms. The state’s tactics also included conducting raids, resorting to torture, and broadcasting forced confession videos to stifle opposition voices.

Given the war’s influence and the weight of international sanctions on public sentiment, the government amplified its propaganda, manipulating the information landscape. To solidify its grip on online content, they introduced new legislation and broadened laws related to extremism.

The Forum is meant to legitimize such state practices of destroying freedom of speech, and the participation of high-level foreign partners will aid in this legitimization, essentially giving a clear sign of accepting such practices amid intensification of repression in the Republic of Belarus.

We, the undersigned organizations of this open letter representing both the international community and Belarusian civil society, advocate for the idea of an open inclusive dialogue on Internet governance based on a multistakeholder approach. We support the IGF’s core principles, “of being open and transparent, inclusive, bottom-up, multistakeholder, and non-commercial,” and its purpose, “to bring people together from various stakeholder groups as equals, in discussions on public policy issues relating to the Internet.” However, we are confident that such a dialogue in Belarus is currently impossible. We also consider harmful attempts to imitate the Forum with the support of international organizations and urge you to refrain from participating in the event.

Rather than endorsing the facade represented by IGF.BY, please take a meaningful and impactful action – write a letter, send a postcard and demand freedom for those political prisoners who, before the 2020 crisis, contributed to the development of IGF.BY as a platform for dialogue:

​​Chekina Liudmila Yurievna, member of the team organizing IGF.BY since 2016, CEO of TUT.BY.

Address: Correctional colony №4, 246035, Gomel, Antoshkina str., 3.

Sentence: 12 years in prison under Art. 361 of the Criminal Code (Calls for actions aimed at causing harm to the national security of the Republic of Belarus), art. 243 of the Criminal Code (Evasion of taxes, fees), art. 130 of the Criminal Code (Inciting hatred or discord).

Zolatava Maryna Vasilievna, the Editor-in-chief of TUT.BY (General Information Partner of IGF.BY since 2016).

Address: Correctional colony №4, 246035, Gomel, Antoshkina str., 3.

Sentence: 12 years in prison in a colony under general regime under Art. 361 of the Criminal Code (Calls for actions aimed at causing harm to the national security of the Republic of Belarus), art. 130 of the Criminal Code (Inciting hatred or discord).

Loika Anastasiya Yuryevna, Co-founder of Human Constanta (Belarusian human rights NGO, co-organizers/partners of IGF.BY since 2017, forcefully dissolved by the government in 2021, continues operating in exile).

Address: Correctional colony №4, 246035, Gomel, Antoshkina str., 3.

Sentence: 7 years in prison in a colony under general regime under Art. 342 of the Criminal Code (Organization and preparation of actions that grossly violate public order, or active participation in them), art. 130 of the Criminal Code (Inciting hatred or discord).

Belarusian Signatories:

The Barys Zvozskau Belarusian Human Rights House

The Belarusian Association of Journalists

Belarusian Helsinki Committee

Human Constanta (Belarus)

Legal Initiative Belarus

Organization for European Expertise and Communications (OEEC) 

Organization for European Expertise and Communications (OEEC) 

International Signatories:

Access Now

Advocacy Initiative for Development (AID)

African Freedom of Expression Exchange (AFEX)

Eurasian Digital Foundation (Qazaqstan)

Freedom House

Human Rights Journalists Network Nigeria 

Internet Protection Society (ex-Russia)

Kenya ICT Action Network (KICTANet)

Kijiji Yeetu

Koneta Hub

Media Diversity Institute – Armenia

Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA)

Miaan Group

Organization of the Justice Campaign

Office of civil freedoms

RosKomSvoboda (Russia)


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