(Reuters) – The Belarusian interior ministry on Friday classified three of the country’s most popular opposition social media channels as extremist organisations, meaning that people can face up to seven years in prison for subscribing to them.
Social media channels such as Telegram messenger were widely used during mass street protests against President Alexander Lukashenko last year both to coordinate demonstrations and share footage of a violent police crackdown.
The NEXTA news outlet, run by a Belarusian exile in Poland, has three channels on Telegram, including NEXTA Live, which has nearly 1 million subscribers in a country of 9.5 million.
“The Ministry of Internal Affairs has made a decision to recognise a group of citizens carrying out extremist activities through the Telegram channels NEXTA, NEXTA-Live and LUXTA, an extremist organisation and prohibiting its activities,” the ministry said in a statement.
Previously, anyone who reposted material from NEXTA risked a fine or detention for 30 days. But the new classification means subscribers could be prosecuted for participating in an extremist organisation and be jailed for up to seven years.
“1.4 million more extremists appeared in Belarus today,” NEXTA wrote in a Tweet. “Ministry of Internal Affairs recognized telegram channels NEXTA, NEXTA Live and LUXTA as ‘extremist formations’. This means that criminal cases can be opened against creators, administrators and subscribers in #Belarus.”
Protests erupted last year after a presidential election that Lukashenko’s opponents say was blatantly rigged to keep the veteran leader in power.
Tens of thousands of people were detained and human rights activists say more than 800 people are now in jail as political prisoners since the protests.
The authorities have recently taken reprisals against citizens who voice dissent online. Hundreds of people were detained and face prison terms for making disrespectful comments about a KGB officer who died in a shootout in Minsk last month.
(Editing by Matthias Williams and Angus MacSwan)