Belarus’s Interior Ministry has added RFE/RL’s Belarus Service, known locally as Radio Svaboda, to its registry of extremist organizations, in a continued clampdown on independent media and civil society sparked by an eruption of protests against authoritarian ruler Alexander Lukashenko’s claim he won a presidential election last year that the opposition says was rigged.
According to the statement issued by the ministry on December 23, “a group of citizens associated via Radio Svaboda’s internet resources were determined to be an extremist group.”
The move means that Belarusians who subscribe to Radio Svaboda online could face up to six years in prison.
The move comes almost three weeks after a court in Minsk designated Radio Svaboda’s official Telegram channel and some of the broadcaster’s social media accounts as extremist.
Authorities in Belarus have declared hundreds of Telegram channels, blogs and chatrooms as “extremist” since the country was engulfed by protests since the August 2020 presidential election, which handed Lukashenko a sixth consecutive term.
In response, the government has cracked down hard on the pro-democracy movement, arresting thousands of people and pushing most of the top opposition figures out of the country. There have also been credible reports of torture and ill-treatment, and several people have died.
Dozens of news websites have been blocked in Belarus and independent media shuttered as part of a sweeping crackdown on information in the wake of the unprecedented protests.
The website of RFE/RL’s Belarus Service has been blocked within Belarus since August 21, 2020, while the accreditation of all locally based journalists working for foreign media, including RFE/RL, were annulled by the Belarusian authorities in October 2020.
Lukashenko, who has run the country since 1994, has denied any fraud in the election and refuses to negotiate with the opposition on a political transition and new elections.
The West has refused to recognize Lukashenko as the legitimate leader of Belarus and in response has imposed several waves of sanctions against the government and other officials accused of aiding and benefiting from the crackdown.