Four ways the international community can protect Belarusian civil society under attack

One year after Belarus’ disputed 2020 elections that resulted in widespread protests, internet shutdowns, and unprecedented government crackdown, authorities have accelerated the repression of civil society with a new wave of arrests, kidnappings, and persecution of independent media and NGOs. As of 3 September 2021, there are 652 political prisoners in Belarus. However, with 4,691 open cases on charges of “extremism” — a series of vaguely defined crimes being used to target protestors, activists, and other government critics — this number grows daily. On 23 July 2021, Belarusian authorities also started dissolving registered NGOs ranging from journalist associations to charities serving vulnerable communities. So far, nearly 200 organizations have already been dissolved or are scheduled for dissolution proceedings in the coming days.

These attacks have made it nearly impossible for civil society to operate within the country. But many activists who have fled Belarus for safety reasons are determined to continue their mission from abroad. While Belarusian civil society both at home and in exile are being incredibly resourceful and resilient, leveraging the internet, digital technologies, and other essential tools to keep their work alive, they also urgently need support from the international community. 

Here are four things the international community can do to help protect Belarusian civil society online and off.

1. Provide affordable tools and equipment for digital security and censorship circumvention.

The Belarusian authorities continue confiscating civil society’s laptops, phones, and hard drives during searches, exposing sensitive work, contacts, and communications, as well as suppressing independent voices by limiting access to online media outlets. Thus, there is a pressing need to provide Belarusian civil society with technical means to protect both themselves and the sensitive data on their servers and devices, as well as to prevent future censorship. We urge tech companies, nonprofits, and funders to expand their support programs and provide Belarusian activists with free and secure VPNs, antivirus programs, encryption, DDoS protection, hosting and website relocation services, and other essential digital tools, equipment, and services — regardless of their registration status. Cloudflare’s Project Galileo is a good example of a digital security initiative that does not require civil society to go through unnecessary hurdles to qualify. 

2. Protect Belarusians from surveillance and other repressive technologies

The recent Pegasus Project revelations have demonstrated that as long as surveillance companies operate with no limitations and public oversight, no activist or journalist is safe from authoritarian surveillance, regardless of their physical location. While we do not have information that the Belarusian government is a customer of NSO Group, we do know that another Israeli intelligence company, Cellebrite, sold its digital forensic technology to the Belarusian regime, allowing it to extract sensitive information from activists’ devices. We also should not forget the U.S.-Canadian firm Sandvine known for facilitating surveillance and censorship around the world, including in Belarus, where its network filtering technology allowed the Belarusian authorities to shut down the internet during and after the 2020 elections. To protect the human rights of the Belarusian people and people around the world, Access Now and a global civil society coalition have called on governments to immediately put in place a moratorium on the sale, transfer, and use of surveillance technology. We recommend adopting legal frameworks requiring private surveillance companies and their investors to conduct human rights due diligence and uphold transparency. Governments should also strictly monitor and regulate the private companies who may assist the Belarusian authorities in violating human rights through the use of facial recognition and other mass surveillance technologies as well as by facilitating internet shutdowns, IP-spoofing, and website blocking. 

3. Review and revise data sharing agreements with Belarus

On May 23, Belarusian authorities grounded a Ryanair flight from Greece to Lithuania as it crossed Belarusian airspace and arrested two of its passengers — Belarusian journalist Raman Pratasevich and partner Sofia Sapega. As Access Now recently highlighted in our letter to Ylva Johansson, the EU Commissioner for Home Affairs, this incident raises serious concerns about Belarusian citizens’ data security and safety during international travels. Passenger Name Record (PNR) information or other databases should not be shared with or leaked to the Belarusian regime. Governments and intergovernmental institutions should review and revise if necessary all data sharing agreements with Belarus and introduce additional safeguards to secure the data of civil society in Belarus and in exile.

4. Consider simplifying registration procedures for Belarusian NGOs in exile

Governments should consider simplifying the visa and registration requirements for NGOs that were liquidated by the Belarusian regime. For example, they should consider eliminating requirements for a physical address or individual NGO members’ personal information in the NGO registration process. Granting activists the possibility to secure a visa and work authorization, allowing them to register an NGO online, and guaranteeing an easy-to-follow procedure for opening a bank account could also help Belarusian civil society to continue their work abroad in a safe and secure manner. 

One year after the 2020 elections, the Belarusian government is showing no signs of readiness to accept the will of the Belarusian people and is instead doubling down on its assault on civil society. States, NGOs, tech companies, and others need to step in to provide affordable tools and services to keep the Belarusian civil society secure from digital attacks and censorship, protect Belarusians from repressive technologies, review and revise data sharing agreements with Belarusian government, and consider simplifying the registration process for Belarusian civil society in exile.

If you are a member of civil society in need of digital security assistance, please contact our Digital Security Helpline (assistance also available in Russian).