Marina Sokolova, Mikhail Doroshevich
This article will analyse to what extent various public, political bodies and CSOs in Belarus have begun to tap into the power of the Internet, and what is largely missing.
It is now generally accepted that the Internet has a great capacity to expand public access to information and to strengthen civil society through building national and international networks. Importantly, the Internet allows a two-way communication: all Internet users can be both speakers and listeners. Accordingly, human rights activists could are becoming more motivated to take into account the Internet's growing force and to exploit its potential for communicating and sharing information.
Interactive policy fora and e-mail have become a major communication tool on human rights issues. The potential impact of the increasing use of the Internet to foster participation in policy-making processes is also tremendous: it is a means of speedy, inexpensive, relatively easy-to-use, difficult-to-restrict, informal medium which could spur public interest and desire to shape policy.
The Internet in Belarus: who has it?
In Belarus, according to statistics compiled by International Telecommunications Union (ITU), there are 1,409,780 Internet users. This accounts for about 14 percent of the country's total population. Recent survey, conducted by the Belarusian Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Research, indicates that people aged 20 to 24 (one third of the respondents) are the most active Internet users, and 50 per cent of all respondents are university graduates. Remarkably, 40 per cent of the Internet users are governmental officials. The majority of users (45.6 per cent) live in regional centers, and 22.9 percent are inhabitants of the capital of the country. So, the "average" Internet user in Belarus is a young governmental employee in his or her early twenties with a university degree living in a regional center
The Belarusian bureaucracy, which has resources more easily at its disposal, appears to have increased its use of Internet communication technologies: at present, 68 (out of about 200, or almost one third) of the Belarusian governmental institutions have their own websites.
Belarusian legislators, as of October 2004, have launched five sites: the upper chamber of the parliament (the Council of the Republic), the lower chamber (House of Representatives), a deputy group at the lower chamber Respublika, and two personal webpages of deputies.
70% of governmental web-sites make web-sites of national bodies and 30% -regional and local administrations. The majority of these web-sites give thematically organized content which practically duplicates information disseminated offline and only 6% of them present some specific information accessible only online. 56% give only minimal information which makes it possible to contact governmental officials via telephone or ordinary mail. Only 3% of web-sites make governmental bodies more accessible and 4% provide some online services. It is obvious that Internet potential is not yet used fully to break the gap between citizens and governmental institutions. But still these governmental institutions are better presented online than political parties and NGOs and the "link density" of governmental web-sites is higher than clickability of the sites of political parties and that one of political parties and CSOs.
Of the 18 officially registered political parties only seven have their websites. Belarusian parliamentary elections in October 2004 saw advance in use of internet Some 199 parliamentary candidates have set up websites, and two of them have initiated online forums. Two further candidates referred to their personal websites during their election campaign.At the same time, the October parliamentary elections campaign made it clear that no political party in Belarus has pursued a consistent online election campaign strategy. Generally, Belarusian political party web-sites provided minimal information about a few of their MP candidates.
Among the NGO community, out of the total of 530 organisations indexed by the NGO.BY portal, only about 64 (or 12 per cent) are represented one way or another online, that is, have either a homepage, or a website, or an e-mail address presented at NGO.by. For instance, out of 23 active Belarusian human rights organisations, only ten can be contacted online (that is, by email or on some online forum); only three of them have their own websites: Belarusian Pen-Center, the Belarusian Helsinki Committee and the Belarusian Association of Journalists. The other seven prominent human rights NGOs (the Belarusian Association of the Victims of Political Repressions, "Children Not for Violence", the Belarusian Center for Constitutionalism, Judicial Assistance to Citizens, Law and Action, Women's Challenge, Law Initiative) provide only their e-mail addresses at NGO.BY portal.
These figures illustrate that in Belarus NGOs seem to lag behind the official structures in using the Internet: the NGOs are almost three times less likely to rely on the Internet, even though doing so would reach out to a substantial chunk of the Belarusian decision-makers, as well as the most politically engaged section of the population. The major reason behind this relatively limited Internet activities by the CSOs seems, besides the lack of resources, also a lower awareness of the Internet's potential, and, perhaps as a result of it, endemic "online-practices illiteracy", despite clear benefits that the Internet can offer.
The overview of the Belarusian governmental, political parties and CSOs websites based on Website Attribute Evaluation System shows that while the data density of these sites is reasonably satisfactory, the interactivity of the sites leaves much to be desired.
The Internet audience in Belarus accordingly remains passive recipients of information, rather than government online services consumers or active participants of an ongoing political process and, for instance, inclusive human rights debate.
The analysis of the situation in Belarus indicates that, at present, the official structures are seemingly more active users of the Internet than political parties and NGOs. Even though this Internet-literacy of the administration creates opportunities to reach policy-makers online, the NGOs nevertheless have yet to use all the advantages that the Internet can bring. Thus, it can be said that civil society activists and political opposition in Belarus has not as yet fully realised the web potential for their work.
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