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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Belarus Cracks Down on Internet Ahead of Vote

MINSK -- Belarussian lawmakers have given final approval to a crackdown on Internet journalism, one of the last remaining independent sources of information in the country.

The legislation also forbids all Belarussian media outlets from accepting foreign funding, a restriction that will effect about 30 publications that now receive U.S. or EU money.

The bill, drafted by President Alexander Lukashenko's office and approved Tuesday by lawmakers, "is among the harshest in Europe and throws Belarus back to the worst Soviet times," said Oleg Gulak, leader of the Belarussian Helsinki Committee, a rights group.

The new restrictions come before parliamentary elections, which Lukashenko on Tuesday set for Sept. 28.

His government argues that the Internet needs to be brought to heel to shield the population from foreign propaganda. "We have to protect society from the negative effects of the Internet," First Deputy Information Minister Liliya Ananich told parliament members Tuesday.

The bill was given final approval in parliament's lower house in a vote of 96 to 2. It now goes to the upper house, which can introduce no changes, before heading to the president to be signed into law.

The new measures require all Internet sites to be officially registered with the government; many independent newspapers that have been closed down by the authorities have taken refuge in cyberspace.

The legislation also toughens controls on journalists, who can be imprisoned for two years for reproducing foreign media reports that "discredit Belarus."

Lukashenko promised that the upcoming elections would be democratic.

"We want to show the West and Russia how to have elections," he was quoted by the Belarussian news agency BelTA as saying Tuesday. "We will make them so democratic that you will be convinced of the real result, of who has the people's support today."