The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has called on Belarusian lawmakers to reject proposed laws that could “further censor” the media in the country.
The New York-based media watchdog made the call in a statement on June 8, two days after Belarus’s Prosecutor-General Alyaksandr Kanyuk said his office was drafting legislation that would enable the state to prosecute people suspected of spreading "false" information on the Internet.
Such a bill was "necessary" to prevent libel and curb the spread of false information that "turns public opinion upside down, which leads to big consequences," Kanyuk told reporters in Minsk on June 6, adding that "the Introduction of a hefty fine or criminal prosecution is not ruled out."
Separately, Belarus’s lower house of parliament is considering amendments to the media law that would strengthen government control over media and the Internet.
In April, lawmakers gave preliminary approval to the amendments that would require that authors of all posts and comments in online forums be identified and that comments be moderated by website owners.
It would allow for social networks and other sites to be blocked if found in violation.
Critics say they fear authoritarian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's government would use the law as a tool to tighten control over the Internet.
CPJ Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Nina Ognianova said the Belarusian government has “jumped on the bandwagon of 'fake news' not because it wants to shield citizens from falsehoods but because it wants more power to decide what information they receive."
"We call on parliament to reject these thinly veiled attempts at tightening censorship," she added.
Belarus ranks 155th in the Paris-based media watchdog Reporters Without Borders’s (RSF) 2017 World Press Freedom Index, which evaluates the level of press freedom in 180 countries each year.