Joining banned Telegram channels will land you in prison

Belarusian law enforcement has published a list of Telegram channels that are now considered extremist, and warned people that merely joining them would be punishable by up to seven years of imprisonment.

The announcement follows the approval of a new resolution titled “On Measures to Counter Extremism and Rehabilitate Nazism” by the Belarus’ Council of Ministers, giving ultimate crackdown powers to Main Directorate for Combating Organized Crime (GUBOP) agency.

GUBOP warns that merely subscribing and reading any content in these extremist Telegram channels would constitute a violation of Article 361-1 of the country’s Criminal Code, which is punishable by up to seven years of deprivation of freedom.

Part of the Telegram channel ban list published by GUBOP
Part of the Telegram channel ban list published by GUBOP

The agency published a full list of over 100 banned channels (1, 2) on a Telegram channel operated by the law enforcement agency

This announcement was followed by a wave of mass un-subscription from the banned channels by terrified users who feared legal trouble.

Crackdown on the Nexta Live network

In the list, we can see the Nexta Live channel, which is maybe the most notable of the bunch, counting almost a million subscribers.

The particular channel is run by an anonymous network of local journalists and activists who oppose the Lukashenko regime, and is one of the very few independent sources of news that the people of Belarus can trust.

It is certainly not an extremist channel, nor does it have any links to Nazism, so its inclusion in the ban list can be merely seen as a censorship attempt.

In May, Belarus shocked the world by intercepting a RyanAir flight from Greece to Lithuania, forcing it to land on Minsk, and arresting journalist Roman Protasevich, the co-founder of Nexta Live.

As such, the targeting of its Telegram channel by the government is not surprising.

Nexta urging its followers not to give in to the state induced intimidation
Nexta urging its followers not to give in to the state’s intimidation

Belarus citizens who want to access independent sources of information are now required to use anonymization tools like VPNs or proxies to hide their IP address from authorities.

Although it’s likely that the GUBOP will not imprison every Telegram group participant in the listed channels, some may be arrested and prosecuted to serve as an example.

In response to those who maintain that nobody will be prosecuted for reading posts on banned channels, the GUBOP has published the following warning today: 

For those who are “simply interested”, the scenario is worse, since the fact of participation or non-participation will already be a process of interaction with law enforcement agencies. Simply put, when they are detained, they will have to prove their innocence to extremist groups, because regular reading of publications in extremist resources is not a professional activity, therefore the tale about “just reading” will turn into a procedural issue.

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