Belarus Blocks and Shutters News Outlets as Protests Swell


MINSK, Belarus — Authorities in Belarus have blocked more than 50 news media websites reporting on how the country has been shaken by two weeks of protests demanding that President Alexander Lukashenko resign after 26 years in power.

The Belarusian Association of Journalists reported the shutdowns Saturday, which included sites for the U.S.-funded Radio Liberty and Belsat, a Polish-funded satellite TV channel focusing on neighboring Belarus.

The move is unlikely to stop Belarusians from staying apprised of events via the medium that has emerged as the most important electronic platform of the protests: the instant messaging service Telegram. But the crackdown is another sign of the government’s trying to take command of the narrative of recent events.

On Friday, the state publishing house stopped printing two top independent newspapers, Narodnaya Volya and Komsomolskaya Pravda, citing an equipment malfunction.

Protests that were historic in Belarus for their size and duration broke out after the Aug. 9 presidential election, which election officials say handed Mr. Lukashenko a sixth term in office in a landslide. Protesters say the official results are fraudulent and are calling for Mr. Lukashenko to resign.

The police responded harshly in the first days of the protests, arresting thousands of people and harshly beating many. But the police crackdown only widened the scope of the protests, and anti-government strikes have been called at some of the country’s main factories, former bases of support for Mr. Lukashenko. Some police have posted videos of themselves burning their uniforms and quitting.

In an enormous show of defiance, an estimated 200,000 protesters rallied last weekend in the capital, Minsk. But Mr. Lukashenko has been unbowed, insisting the protests against him threaten Belarus’s very existence, and the question now is whether protesters turn out in similar numbers again amid veiled threats of violence against them.

Mr. Lukashenko’s main election challenger, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, has called for another major show of opposition at a protest this Sunday. One of Minsk’s most popular nightlife districts was atypically empty on Saturday evening as many of the capital’s youth prepared for what could be a key day in the movement against Mr. Lukashenko.

“We are closer than ever to our dream,” Ms. Tikhanovskaya said in a video message from Lithuania, where she took refuge after the election. Some previous presidential challengers in Belarus have been jailed for years.

Public shows of support for Mr. Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus with an iron fist since 1994, have been comparatively modest. A pro-government rally in Minsk last weekend attracted about a quarter as many people as the protest march.

On Saturday, only about 25 people showed up for a bicycle ride to show support for the president, while hundreds of women dressed in white formed a chain in Minsk to protest against his government.

“Threats, intimidation, blocking no longer work. Hundreds of thousands of Belarusians are telling him ‘Go away’ from all corners and squares,” said Anna Skuratovich, one of the women in the chain.

Protesters say they are fed up with the country’s declining living standards and angered at Mr. Lukashenko’s dismissal of the coronavirus pandemic.

Mr. Lukashenko has claimed that the protests are inspired by Western forces including the United States and that NATO is deploying forces near Belarus’s western border. The alliance denies that claim.

On Saturday, Mr. Lukashenko spoke at a rally of several thousand supporters in Grodno, where he threatened to close factories that are on strike. Strikes have hit some of the country’s major companies, including vehicle and fertilizer manufacturers, a potential blow to the largely state-controlled economy.

Authorities on Friday threatened demonstrators with criminal charges in a bid to stop the protests. Investigators also summoned several opposition activists for questioning.

Source : Nytimes