The bill would allow the government to close Internet sites without warning and imprison journalists for reproducing foreign media reports. It would also forbid unregistered journalists from posting material online.
Critics said the bill, drafted by authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko's office, was the latest government move to stifle freedom of information.
«This is the most repressive law in Europe and was developed in secret and at lightning speed,» said Zhanna Litvina, head of the Belarusian Association of Journalists. The ex-Soviet republic's government argues that the Internet needs to be brought to heel to shield the population from foreign propaganda.
«In Belarus there is a problem of the flow of disinformation from foreign sites,» said First Deputy Information Minister Liliya Ananich.
«But there is the experience of China, which has closed access to such sites on its territory,» she said.
Parliament gave preliminary backing to the bill on Tuesday. It must pass one more reading before heading to Lukashenko for his signature.
The Internet is the last truly free medium in Belarus, which Lukashenko has ruled with an iron fist since the early 1990s. All television channels are state-controlled. Many of the independent newspapers ordered closed have taken refuge in cyberspace. But the online posting of a Lukashenko caricature earlier this year prompted a crackdown. Authorities searched offices of Internet editions as well as journalists' apartments, confiscating material.
«The Internet space was the most free and uncontrolled auditorium,» said Alexander Starikevich, editor of the popular online newspaper Solidarnost. «The Internet media audience grew exponentially every year, and this really irritated the authorities.
Under the bill, every media outlet would have 12 months to reregister with authorities. Foreign ownership of media outlets will not be allowed to exceed 30 percent. Reporters will be required to disclose their sources when the government demands it. Information obtained through secret filming or audio recording will be barred from distribution.