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Belarus classifies social media channels as “extremist” in a new raid

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MMA – BFC 50 – Belarusian Fight Championship – Prime Hall, Minsk, Belarus – April 17, 2020 A fan wearing a face mask uses their mobile phone before the fight. REUTERS / Vasily Fedosenko / File Photo

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Oct. 29 (Reuters) – The Belarusian Interior Ministry on Friday identified three of the country’s most popular opposition social media channels as extremist organizations, meaning people face up to seven years in prison for subscribing to them.

Social media channels such as the Telegram messenger were often used during mass protests against President Alexander Lukashenko last year to coordinate demonstrations and share footage of violent police crackdowns.

NEXTA news agency, 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.

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“The Ministry of the Interior has decided to recognize and ban a group of citizens who engage in extremist activities via the Telegram channels NEXTA, NEXTA-Live and LUXTA, an extremist organization,” the ministry said in a statement.

Previously, anyone who republished NEXTA material risked a fine or a 30-day prison term. However, the new classification means that subscribers could be prosecuted for their involvement in an extremist organization and could face up to seven years in prison.

“Today 1.4 million other extremists showed up in Belarus,” wrote NEXTA in a tweet. “The Ministry of the Interior has recognized the telegram channels NEXTA, NEXTA Live and LUXTA as ‘extremist formations’. This means that criminal proceedings can be initiated against authors, administrators and subscribers in # Belarus.”

Protests erupted last year after a presidential election that Lukashenko’s opponents say were obviously manipulated to keep the veteran leader in power.

Tens of thousands have been arrested and human rights activists say more than 800 people have been held as political prisoners since the protests.

The authorities recently retaliated against citizens who express dissenting opinions online. Hundreds of people have been arrested and threatened with prison terms for making disrespectful comments about a KGB officer who died in a shooting in Minsk last month.

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Editing by Matthias Williams and Angus MacSwan

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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