Censorship in Belarus: Resisting Oppressive Media Control

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Censorship in Belarus: A Quick Guide

With growing tension on the Russian border, censorship in Belarus is at an all-time high. Following the falsified elections of 2020, mass protests against the Lukashenko regime broke out.

In response, the Belarusian authorities have taken to harassing, beating, and detaining anyone who dares speak out. For independent journalists, this has created an extremely risky work environment.

Since many websites are blocked, people have been using virtual private networks (VPNs) to circumvent censorship in Belarus. For our readers in Belarus, we recommend using NordVPN, as it’s safe, uses robust security protocols, and offers obfuscated servers.

Read on to find out about the state of censorship in Belarus, and how you can get around it!

Also known as “Europe’s last dictatorship,” Belarus has one of the most restrictive internet landscapes in the world.

Since the media is almost completely controlled by authorities, it’s nearly impossible to access any independent news outlets or foreign social media. On top of that, anyone who dares criticize the regime risks harassment or detention.

After long-sitting president Aliaksandr Lukashenko was re-elected through falsified elections in 2020, mass protests broke out. In response, the Belarus government has been cracking down on dissidents more than ever before.

The ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine also continues to put pressure on a media environment that’s already heavily polarized and censored.

Despite the fact that virtual private networks (VPNs) are officially banned, many Belarusians use them to get around censorship. If you’re worried about surveillance and censorship, a VPN can keep you safe online.

The State of Media Freedom in Belarus

Officially, the Belarus constitution forbids censorship: the rights to freedom of expression and access to information are both protected by law. In reality, however, Belarus is one of the worst enforcers of media censorship in the world.

Under the guise of safeguarding national security and combatting “fake news,” both online and offline media are kept under tight government control. Expressing political dissent is not accepted; insulting the president, for example, can land you in jail for up to five years.

Freedom of the press

In 2019, Belarus received a score of 1.46 on the Media Sustainability Index, which measures and analyzes the conditions for independent media in a country. A score this low classifies Belarus as “unsustainable” and “anti-free” when it comes to media freedom.

The institution responsible for media regulation is the Ministry of Information. With the 2008 Law on Mass Media, they were made to oversee licensing and registration. In essence, the Ministry of Information has the power to shut down any outlet that threatens the interests of the state.

Licensing is highly bureaucratic: in order to be officially registered, media outlets need to go through a complex and cumbersome process. Independent media suffer from economic discrimination and receive little or no funding. Foreign media, such as BBC News, are unable to operate freely in Belarus at all.

Authoritarian control

Since 1994, Belarus has only known one president: Aliaksandr Lukashenko. All state-owned media are subject to him and the Belarus government officials. In order to force support for Lukashenko’s ongoing regime, these outlets exclusively reflect pro-government views.

Belarusian political opposition campaigns are crushed. Over the years, this has resulted in a very tightly controlled media landscape, dominated by political intimidation.

In 2020, Lukashenko was re-elected through falsified elections, which triggered massive protests. Since then, censorship has only worsened. Journalists are continuously harassed, intimidated, and jailed for speaking up against the president or the Belarus regime.

More than 500 independent journalists, activists, bloggers, and media workers have been arrested. In 2021, authorities re-routed a Ryanair flight from Greece to Lithuania, to arrest Raman Pratasevich, founder of Nexta, the most popular Telegram channel in Belarus.

Forced to admit on camera to organizing antigovernment protests, the video shows Pratasevich with bruises on his face, having been beaten by the authorities. This is only one of the many examples of the mistreatment of independent journalists.

Internet censorship

Up until 2014, Belarusian authorities could not limit access to online media without a court order. Initially, this meant that internet censorship was pretty limited. In recent years, however, the state has expanded its control over online media by allowing the Ministry of Information to legally blacklist any website that can be considered a threat to public opinion.

As is the case for traditional media, the rigged elections of 2020 have led to growing online censorship. Hundreds of websites are blocked. In order to stop people from protesting on Election Day, the internet was shut down for 61 hours and repeatedly in the weeks after.

Not only did this prevent people from organizing, it also masked police brutality against protesters. Many people took steps to protect their identity when protesting.

When it comes to social media, Lukashenko has explicitly stated his desire to ban all social media networks. He perceives social media to be a tool of dissent that allows for revolution and insurgency.

Besides censorship of online media, there’s a high degree of surveillance in Belarus. It’s virtually impossible to do anything online without the government being aware of it.

This is because internet service providers (ISPs) are required to keep extensive logs of people’s online activity. The Ministry of Interior also uses a system known as Passport to link people’s identity to their mobile service use.

2022: Russia-Ukraine conflict

In the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine, Belarus has been caught between two ideological spheres of influence. Initially, mass media echoed Russia’s framing of the war, but recently, media coverage has somewhat changed.

Online, polarization is growing. On social media, expressing criticism of Lukashenko and Putin puts people at risk of persecution. During the first months of the conflict, censorship and surveillance of Belarusian citizens tightened.

On a geopolitical level, Belarus is in a delicate position. If there is too much explicit support for the Russian invasion, Belarus suffers international sanctions. At the same time, Putin is a close political ally of Lukashenko and the Belarus president has traditionally always supported the Kremlin.

Considering historical ties, the question of whether Belarus, at some point, might join Russia is at the front of people’s minds. However, since May 2022, Lukashenko has started signaling his unease about the duration of the conflict and asked Western states to refrain from classifying Belarus as a co-aggressor.

Within the Belarus population, there’s limited support for sending Belarusian troops into Ukraine, even amongst Lukashenko supporters.

Generally, the Russia-Ukraine conflict has made the internet in Belarus even more unsafe and inaccessible. Many are worried about their privacy. There’s also a strong desire for access to international news and independent journalism.

Wondering how to stay protected online? Scroll down to our section on VPN use in Belarus for more information and advice.

What Content is Being Censored?

In essence, censorship is always a tool of control. By restricting people’s access to information, the Belarus government attempts to influence public opinion. Censorship affects all media, both online and offline, but generally limits the following content.

Three types of content that Belarus censors on the internet, with symbols

Political dissent

Censoring political opposition is not a new practice in Belarus. Since 2001, government officials have restricted people’s access to independent media that cover political and societal news. Especially around presidential elections, political websites and news outlets are often blocked.

If a media outlet receives two or more official warnings for publishing politically sensitive content, the government can shut them down. The Belarusian Association of Journalists notes that these orders are given more frequently now than in previous years, especially after the 2020 elections.

Sensitive content includes criticism of the Belarusian regime or of its leader, Aliaksandr Lukashenko. The government will either force websites to take this content down or restrict people’s access to it. This also includes references to pro-democracy Telegram channels, human rights websites, or foreign news.

Websites, search engines, and social media

The Ministry of Information is in charge of Belarus’s blacklist of banned websites, which is maintained by the Ministry of Communications. The list is reviewed and updated on a daily basis. Besides ISPs, only government institutions have access to the list.

After Lukashenko’s falsified elections, more than 70 websites were blocked, including, at various points, TUT.by, which is Belarus’s biggest and most influential independent online news outlet.

The government censors any website that is opposed to the regime. Charter 97, a popular independent news site based in Poland, has been banned in Belarus since 2018.

Censorship also affects search engines and social media. Google has been replaced with a state-owned search engine, which complies with censorship legislation and makes it a lot easier for the authorities to surveil Belarusian citizens. Social media platforms like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter are also heavily censored.

Illegal and extremist content

Besides political dissent, websites are often banned for hosting “extremist” content. Because there’s no clear definition for what constitutes extremism, it can be applied to anything from adult sites to blogs, though there are ways to watch porn anonymously in censored regions.

While censoring “extremist” content can limit the amount of hate speech or racially motivated propaganda online, it’s often used as a justification for deleting legitimate political opposition.

If you’re caught creating illegal content or trying to engage with it online, you can be fined or persecuted.

Why Does Belarus Censor the Internet?

In 2019, Belarus was named one of the ten most censored countries in the world by the Committee to Protect Journalists. While national security is often used as a justification for censorship, it is a mechanism of control more than anything else.

There are several reasons why Belarus censors the internet:

Three reasons why Belarus censors the internet, with symbols

Shape public opinion

Censorship in Belarus is an apparatus that prevents criticism of the political regime. State-sponsored mass media are only allowed to discuss politics in a certain way or they risk bans.

Any media that does not fall under the purview of the Belarus authorities is simply made inaccessible. This is done to shape and maintain control over public opinion and is a necessary tool for the leader in an authoritative state to stay in power.

Limit ‘fake news’

From the side of the Belarus government, limiting “fake news” is the main justification for media restrictions. In 2018, a new bill was drafted that allows authorities to block networks and websites for spreading misinformation. This, too, is a thinly veiled attempt to control people’s access to information.

Nationalist protectionism

In terms of foreign policy, Belarus authorities consider other countries’ involvement or meddling with Belarusian affairs a significant threat. Censorship is framed as a means to protect Belarus from foreign interference.

How Does Belarus Censor the Internet?

In Belarus, authorities exercise almost complete control over the media. Independent media are heavily censored and journalists face various risks. How does Belarus uphold censorship?

Three ways in which Belarus censors the internet, with symbols

Internet service providers

The Belarus government sets the standards for information security and oversees the ISPs. This involves high levels of digital surveillance and control.

During the 2020 pro-democracy protest, ISPs were continuously ordered to restrict people’s internet access, either through denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks or by cutting users off from the internet completely.

Persecution of independent journalists

The more aggressively the Belarus government responds to critical journalists, the more dangerous it becomes to say anything out of line. Detainment is used as a tool to stop people from reporting on specific topics. In a media landscape like this, independent journalism is essentially impossible.

Surveillance

In order to keep a close eye on online activity and keep people frightened enough to obey, Belarus uses spyware to monitor its citizens. There is no judicial oversight to stop the authorities from doing this, which means that anything goes: location tracking, bugging people’s phones, and even sifting through text messages.

How to Get Around Censorship in Belarus

Going online in Belarus comes with many risks. Not only will you not be able to access certain websites freely; but there’s also a high chance that Belarus authorities will know exactly what you’re up to. For this reason, Belarusian citizens and those visiting the country, are using circumvention tools to access the free internet in a secure way.

There are different ways to get around censorship. The safest and easiest way is to use a virtual private network (VPN). Other circumvention tools, such as proxy servers, are also used. People who want to be truly anonymous online use Tor, the dark web browser.

It’s important to note that Belarus is actively pushing back against the use of anonymizing tools. VPNs, proxy servers, and Tor are all banned. However, the effectiveness of these bans is disputed; circumvention tools are still accessible and it seems like Belarus authorities don’t have the technological capacity to actually enforce the ban.

As is the case in other countries where VPNs are illegal, you might be fined if you are caught visiting a banned website. However, obfuscation technology used by premium VPN providers makes VPN use extremely difficult to detect.

This is why many people in Belarus are still able to use a VPN to gain access to the uncensored web. Finally, the use of encrypted messaging apps such as Telegram is widespread. Especially during political elections or pro-democracy protests, people are using secure messaging apps to organize themselves.


The 3 Best VPNs for Belarus

If you’re in Belarus, it’s important that you protect your identity when going online. Here’s our list of the top three best VPNs that you can use in Belarus.

1. NordVPN

Screenshot of NordVPN provider website homepage

NordVPN is one of the most secure and reliable VPNs in the world. They use 256-bit AES encryption, are a verified no-log VPN, and run their software on OpenVPN and IKEv2/IPsec. On top of that, they have an automatic kill switch and DNS leak protection, to keep your connection secure.

What makes NordVPN suited for Belarus? One of the great benefits is the fact that NordVPN uses obfuscated servers. These will make your data traffic look like regular traffic instead of being masked by a VPN. In Belarus, where VPNs are illegal, this is an excellent feature.

It’s also possible to use the Double VPN feature with NordVPN. This will allow you to connect via two VPN servers instead of one: an extra layer of protection.

The software is easy to use and there’s a 24/7 live chat for any support you might need while using NordVPN.

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2. Surfshark

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Surfshark is the perfect budget-friendly VPN. For a very low price, you can connect to an unlimited number of devices, giving you maximum value for money.

Does this go at the expense of your security? Not at all! Surshark offers excellent features, including 256-bit encryption, WireGuard and OpenVPN protocols, and a built-in kill switch. They also allow split tunneling, which makes it possible to only run part of your device traffic via a VPN.

Surfshark’s NoBorders mode is specifically designed to circumvent strict censorship and government surveillance, making it a great fit for Belarus. On top of that, Surfshark has over 3,000 servers in 65 countries.

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3. CyberGhost

Screenshot of CyberGhost VPN, homepage with logo

CyberGhost has one of the largest server networks in the world: over 9,000 servers in 70 countries. This makes it an excellent VPN to unblock banned websites.

Like NordVPN and Surfshark, CyberGhost has a strict no-logging policy to keep your personal data protected. While this VPN service does not have any obfuscated servers, they do have excellent protection on public Wi-Fi networks and the option to request a dedicated IP address, which makes it more difficult for authorities to detect VPN use.

CyberGhost is affordable and user-friendly. Their desktop client and mobile apps are easy to use, there’s a 24/7 live chat to support you, and with a 45-day money-back guarantee, you can properly try the VPN without committing to a long-term subscription.

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How to Choose a Belarus VPN

VPN shield next to a Belarussian flagBecause of the official ban on VPNs in Belarus, it’s important that you use a VPN that actually gets you online in a safe and secure manner. When looking for a VPN, keep the following characteristics in mind:

Obfuscation

The best VPN providers use technology that hides VPN use. This is especially useful if you’re in a region with limited media freedom, such as China or Iran.

For Belarus, choosing a VPN provider like NordVPN that offers obfuscated servers gives you the best chance to stay online without authorities knowing you’re using a VPN.

Security features

Considering the degree of surveillance in Belarus, you’re best off with a VPN that has top-notch security features. Make sure you pay attention to the type of encryption and VPN protocols a provider offers and choose a VPN with a functioning kill switch.

Extensive server network

If you’re using a VPN to get access to a wider variety of news sources or social media platforms that are blocked, you want to choose a service with servers in many different countries. This gives you the best chance at unblocking the content you are looking to access.

Customer service

The last thing you want is to be stuck with a VPN that doesn’t work. It’s always a plus when a VPN provider has a 24/7 live support chat available. That way, you can immediately contact someone when your VPN doesn’t work properly.

Though it might be tempting, we don’t recommend using a free VPN in Belarus. Often, these VPNs come with risks and limitations that prevent you from actually being protected to stay online.

Final Thoughts: Stay Safe Online in Belarus

Mass media outlets in Belarus are increasingly targeted by censorship. The state has a monopoly on information and independent news websites are under attack. Online, those who speak out against the government or president Lukashenko risk being harassed, arrested, or detained.

However, journalists, activists, and regular citizens continue to push back against the oppressive regime. Circumvention tools such as proxy servers or VPNs allow people to organize themselves and stay safe online. Though officially illegal, the use of such tools is widespread.

Apart from using a VPN, you can also use the Minecraft game server that’s set up by Reporters Without Borders to access information online. The organization has created an online library of information that’s accessible to independent journalists and citizens on the ground. It’s a way to find news that is otherwise unavailable.

In order to limit government surveillance, we recommend using NordVPN, Surfshark, or CyberGhost in Belarus. If you’re in Belarus, these VPNs will keep you safe and ensure your privacy online.

Censorship in Belarus: Frequently Asked Questions

Do you have any questions about censorship in Belarus or how to protect yourself online? Check out our FAQ below for some quick answers.

Media freedom in Belarus is very limited. All state-sponsored media are under control of the Belarus government and serve to propagate long-sitting president Lukashenko. Independent journalists are often harrassed, abused or even detained for expressing criticism.

With the recent invasion of Russia into Ukraine, censorship in Belarus has tightened even more.

Freedom of speech is guaranteed in the Belarus constitution. However, in reality, freedom of speech is limited. Criticism of the political regime or president Lukashenko can land you in prison for multiple years. This is why self-censorship is common.

Yes, you can access the internet in Belarus. However, as a result of strict media control, many websites are blocked. The Ministry of Information keeps a blacklist of all banned sites, which is checked and updated daily. If you want to unblock these sites, you will need a VPN.

Since VPNs are banned in Belarus, it’s important that you choose a provider with good obfuscation software. This makes it more difficult for the Belarus government to detect VPN use. However, reliable VPNs such as NordVPN can protect your identity in Belarus.

There’s an official ban on VPNs in Belarus. However, the authorities do not have the technical capacity to fully uphold it. This is why VPN use is still widespread. The best VPNs are designed to work even in heavily censored regions.

International Censorship & Security Journalist
Lauren Mak is an internal censorship and security-focused journalist with a keen eye for how technology affects society. With a background in International Relations and North American Studies, Lauren brings a unique perspective to the VPNOverview team. Lauren has a passion for helping others understand the importance of privacy, freedom, and internet safety and brings that passion to VPNOverview.