The curious case of Roman Protasevich. Can government officials prevent journalists from speaking the truth to power?
On Sunday, a Ryanair plane flying from Greece to Lithuania was forced to land in Minsk, where Belarusian journalist Raman Protasevich, former editor of Telegram channels Nexta and Nexta Live, was arrested. Passengers aboard the plane described Protasevich to look “super scared.” Monika Simkiene told AFP that Protasevich Just turned to people and said he was facing the death penalty.”
Tadeusz Giczan, editor-in-chief for Nexta, said on Twitter that a co-passenger next to Protasevich stated, “They took us out of the plane, the dogs sniffed our luggage. They took that guy aside, threw his belongings on the runway. We asked him, What’s going on?”
The passenger Giczan quotes on Twitter, claims that Protasevich told him, “They’ll execute me here.”
A guy sitting next to Roman Protasevich on the plane: “They took us out of the plane, the dogs sniffed our luggage. They took that guy (Roman) aside, threw his belongings on the runway. We asked him what’s going on. He told me who he is and added, “They’ll execute me here”(1/2) pic.twitter.com/Nm00NY4YAW
— Tadeusz Giczan (@TadeuszGiczan) May 23, 2021
The death penalty wasn’t in question for murder or some high-crime, but for the criticism of the Belarus government. Roman Protasevich’s girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, a Russian citizen, was also detained yesterday in Minsk. The man behind Protasevich’s arrest is the President of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko. His government accused the journalist of terrorism of provoking riots through Nexta channels, the platform used to organize opposition protests against Lukashenko’s presidential win last year.
Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, Belarus opposition leader, called for an immediate release of Raman and Sofia. “It is also important to launch an international investigation and end the impunity of Lukensheka’s regime,” she wrote on Twitter.
Reactions from world leaders
Following the arrest, the United States has been working closely with E.U., Lithuanian and Greek officials to coordinate a proper response.
On Sunday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken strongly condemned “The forced diversion of a flight between two E.U. member states and the subsequent removal and arrest of journalist Raman Pratasevich in Minsk. We demand his immediate release.”
The U.S. ambassador to Belarus, Julie Fisher, expressed her outrage on Twitter, “Lukashenka and his regime today showed again it’s contempt for international community and its citizens. Faking a bomb threat and sending MiG-29s to force RyanAir to Minsk in order to arrest a Nexta journalist on politically motivated charges is dangerous and abhorrent.”
U.K. Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, made a statement on Twitter as well, stating, “The actions of the Belarusian authorities represent what appears to be a serious violation of international law on civil aviation.” The U.K. is now advising U.K. airlines to cease overflights of Belarusian airspace.
“Following the forced diversion of a @Ryanair aircraft to Minsk yesterday, I’ve instructed @UK_CAA to request airlines avoid Belarusian airspace in order to keep passengers safe. I have also suspended Belavia’s operating permit,” said U.K. Secretary for Transportation Grant Shapps.
Following the forced diversion of a @Ryanair aircraft to Minsk yesterday, I’ve instructed @UK_CAA to request airlines avoid Belarusian airspace in order to keep passengers safe. I have also suspended Belavia’s operating permit.
— Rt Hon Grant Shapps MP (@grantshapps) May 24, 2021
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg stated he is “Closely monitoring forcible landing in #Belarus of flight to Vilnius & reported detention of opposition figure Roman Protasevich. This is a serious & dangerous incident that requires international investigation. Belarus must ensure the safe return of crew & all passengers.”
Despite repeated condemnation from the rest of the world, Russians defended the actions of Belarus. Sergei Lavrov, Russian Foreign Minister, expressed that Belarus had treated the incident with an “absolutely reasonable approach.”
Maria Zakharova, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, accuses the West of hypocrisy for remaining silent on previous plane diversions such as the Morales and Snowden incident. In 2013 President of Bolivia, Evo Morales forced a plane carrying NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden to land in Austria over suspicions Snowden was aboard.
Zakharova wrote on Facebook, “Either everything should be shocked: from forced landings in Austria of the President of Bolivia at the request of the United States and in Ukraine after 11 minutes of taking off the Belarusian board with the anti-Maidan activist. Either the same behavior of others should not shock.”
Monday evening, Protasevich appeared in a new video amid his arrest, released by Belarus State TV. In the video, the journalist claimed that he was fine and confessed to organizing the ant-Lukashenko riots. “I continue to cooperate with the investigation and have confessed to organizing mass riots in the city of Minsk,” said Protasevich. “I am being treated by the police absolutely correctly and according to the law,” he added.
Many of his supporters believe that he was forced to say this statement and fear him being tortured. Protasevich’s father, Dzmitry Protasevich, called his son’s arrest “total insanity.”
— Hanna Liubakova (@HannaLiubakova) May 24, 2021
“It’s likely his nose is broken because the shape of it has changed and there’s a lot of powder on it. All of the left side of his face has powder,” his father said.
Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the exiled Belarusian opposition leader stated there was “No doubt that Roman was being tortured in prison.”
Protasevich’s father expressed, “It’s not his words, it’s not his intonation of speech. He is acting very reserved and you can see he is nervous.”
World leaders have spoken out following the video, denouncing his detention. “This outrageous incident and the video Mr. Pratasevich appears to have made under duress are shameful assaults on both political dissent and the freedom of the press,” said President Biden.
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, wrote on Twitter Tuesday morning, “The video of Roman Protasevich makes for deeply distressing viewing. As a journalist and a passionate believer in freedom of speech I call for his immediate release.”
Johnson made it clear that the actions of Belarus “will have consequences.”
The video of Roman Protasevich makes for deeply distressing viewing.
As a journalist and a passionate believer in freedom of speech I call for his immediate release.
Belarus’ actions will have consequences.
— Boris Johnson (@BorisJohnson) May 25, 2021
Who is Roman Protasevich?
Roman Protasevich, 26, is the co-founder and former editor of the Nexta channel on Telegram, the opposition outlet in Belarus. Nexta became a popular platform to discuss opposition against president Lukashenko. As a teenager, Protasevich became a dissident journalist, and as a result, soon after, he came under scrutiny by law enforcement.
In 2011, Protasevich was expelled from his school for participating in a protest. In 2012, he was arrested for running two groups against Lukashenko on Vkontakte, a social media network, Russian equivalent to Facebook.
Protasevich was later admitted to Belarusian State University, where he was expelled from there too.
Flash forward to 2019, fearing his arrest, Protasevich fled the country. From an exile in Lithuania, Protasevich has continued to criticize the Lukashenko government. In response, Protasevich was charged with inciting public disorder and social hatred.
The outrageous and illegal behaviour of the regime in Belarus will have consequences.
Those responsible for the #Ryanair hijacking must be sanctioned.
Journalist Roman Protasevich must be released immediately.
EUCO will discuss tomorrow action to take.
— Ursula von der Leyen (@vonderleyen) May 23, 2021
Conversations on Nexta channels were believed to cause many protests against Lukenshenko’s presidential win on the streets of Belarus. It is believed that In 2020, the Belarusian opposition used Protasevich Nexta channels to get information about the Lukenshenko election. Nexta published incriminating videos of state violence, advertised protest helplines, and leaked personal details of riot police officers.
“We take ideas that people give us, work them up, cross-check and present them to the people,” Protasevich told Oliver Carroll of The Independent in an interview last August.
Belarus’ government’s main security agency put Protasevich on the terrorist list, and if convicted, Protasevich could be facing the death penalty. If charged with inciting public disorder and social hatred, he could face 12 years in prison.
So what does this mean for journalism? What threat does this put on freedom of speech?
What can and cannot journalists say when covering stories? Will doing their jobs cost them their freedoms? The incident with journalist Roman Protasvich is a reminder of what happened to journalist Jamal Khashoggi for being a government critic.
In 2018, Khashoggi was killed in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. Before becoming a fierce critic, Khashoggi was close with the Saudi royal family for years and served as an advisor to the government. Not until 2017 did Khashoggi fall out of good graces with the royal family and went into self-imposed exile in the U.S.
In the Washington Post, he published many stories criticizing the policies of Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
In the wake of the recent incident of journalist Protasevich, Brian Karem, a White House reporter, wrote on Twitter in response to Protasevich’s arrest. “When you don’t impose sanctions against MBS and Saudi Arabia for murdering a journalist, you give every other despot on the planet the go-ahead . . . and this is the fallout.”
But is the condemnation from reporters and leaders worldwide enough to save the notion of freedom of speech?
In a statement released by the Department of State in February 2021, Antony Blinken said, “Individuals should be able to exercise their human rights and fundamental freedoms without fear of government retribution, retaliation, punishment, or harm.”
Blinken added that “We have made absolutely clear that extraterritorial threats and assaults by Saudi Arabia against activists, dissidents, and journalists must end. They will not be tolerated by the United States.”
What happened to Khashoggi should never happen again to any journalist.
On Monday, the White House stated they “Condemn the Lukenshenko’s regime’s ongoing harassment and arbitrary detention of journalists simply for doing their jobs.”
A journalist’s job is to tell a story; it is their fundamental right. Government officials or those in power cannot obstruct this right because they disagree with the opinion. Blinken reiterated that “Independent media are an essential pillar supporting the rule of law and a vital component of a democratic society.”
“We stand with the Belarusian people in their aspirations for a free, democratic, and prosperous future and support their call for the regime to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms,” said Blinken.
Freedom of speech is fundamental to democracy. Those in power should not be able to silence the voice of a journalist.