The aerial abduction of Roman Protasevich in Belarus

On Sunday, a commercial Ryanair flight from Athens, Greece, to Vilnius, Lithuania, was nearing its destination when it suddenly changed course. The government of Belarus, an Eastern European dictatorship, had intercepted the flight just before it left the country’s airspace and demanded that it make an emergency landing in Minsk, the capital. Some of the passengers feared that the plane had a problem. In fact, it was carrying a problem for the Belarusian regime: a twenty-six-year-old exile named Roman Protasevich, who cofounded a channel on the Telegram app that has been used to coordinate—and journalistically cover—mass protests against the rule of President Alexander Lukashenko. After the flight landed in Minsk, Protasevich and his girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, who is Russian, were quickly arrested; the other passengers were held for several more hours, one of them told Politico, so that the authorities might “have this show that they were actually searching for something, when they only wanted to get the guy.” In an initial statement, Ryanair did not mention Protasevich, instead apologizing for the “regrettable delay, which was outside Ryanair’s control.” The Belarusian government, for its part, said that it grounded the plane after receiving a bomb threat from the Palestinian militant group Hamas. (Hamas called this “fake news.”) In reality, it was a hijacking, and a kidnapping.

The abduction of Protasevich triggered widespread international outrage that hasn’t yet abated. Yesterday, US President Joe Biden condemned it as an assault “on both political dissent and the freedom of the press,” as well as “a direct affront to international norms.” European Union leaders levied economic sanctions against Belarus; they also said that European airlines should avoid Belarusian airspace, and moved to start banning Belarusian airlines from EU airspace. An official in neighboring Latvia raised the flag of the Belarusian opposition; in response, Belarus kicked Latvia’s entire diplomatic delegation out of the country. Also yesterday, Belarusian state TV aired a video that showed Protasevich seated at a table, confessing to inciting mass riots. The confession is widely believed to have been forced; Protasevich’s father, who fled Belarus last year and now lives in Poland, told Reuters that his son’s voice sounded unnatural, and that his nose appeared to have been broken. State TV also responded to claims that agents of the Belarusian KGB followed Protasevich onto the Ryanair flight then disembarked in Minsk, airing a report in which three people testified to simply having decided to end their journey early. The KGB claim had been leveled by, among others, Michael O’Leary, the CEO of Ryanair, who yesterday went on an Irish radio station and accused Belarus of “state-sponsored piracy.” Meanwhile, his airline continued to fly over Belarusian airspace.

ICYMI: Emily Wilder, tradition, and the double standards around objectivity

International media reports have referred to Protasevich, variously, as an activist and a journalist. That’s because he is both. Franak Viačorka, an adviser to the exiled Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, told the Financial Times that Protasevich is a “hybrid type of media activist”; Martin Bright wrote, for Index on Censorship, that to be an independent journalist in Belarus is to “immediately become an activist,” and thus, in the eyes of the regime, a terrorist. Bright urged international observers to steer well clear of Lukashenko’s preferred framing and defend Protasevich as a journalist, which is a fair point—but all around the world, the work of activists and journalists, even when clearly separate, relies on the same basic set of speech rights and the same fights for democracy. In Belarus, Lukashenko has trampled those rights across the board, particularly since last summer, when he declared a massive victory in an election that was widely viewed as a sham, and cracked down on the citizens who flooded the streets in protest. Between August and November, the regime arrested thousands of people, sometimes in a single day. More than three hundred of these arrests targeted reporters.

Lukashenko’s repression of protest and the press hasn’t abated since then. In December, his authorities went after a Belarusian press club, charging five people with tax crimes and deporting a sixth; in February, they raided the Belarusian Association of Journalists and the homes of top staffers, where they confiscated electronics and money. Two days later, a court sentenced Katsyarina Andreyeva and Darya Chultsova, who covered protests for the Polish-based channel Belsat TV, to two-year jail terms; shortly after that, Katsiaryna Barysevich, a reporter with the independent news site Tut.by, got a six-month sentence for “violating medical confidentiality” in a story about a protester who died after he was beaten by police. (A doctor who shared documents with Barysevich got a two-year suspended sentence.) In a ten-day period at the end of March, the authorities detained at least sixteen reporters who had covered protests; earlier this month, they detained at least three reporters who had covered trials involving opposition activists. A week ago, officials raided the offices of Tut.by and forced the site offline; eleven staffers were detained, as was a reporter from another outlet who showed up to cover the raid and remains in jail. Sunday’s arrest of Protasevich isn’t even the most recent assault on speech in Belarus: yesterday, Lukashenko signed a law banning independent coverage of unauthorized rallies and polls, and allowing the government to shutter news outlets without first obtaining a court order.

It is the Protasevich incident that has cut through in the international press, perhaps more so than any news out of Belarus since the election last summer. Some observers have compared it to Saudi Arabia’s murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the country’s consulate in Istanbul, in 2018, and there are indeed similarities. Protasevich is alive, but he reportedly told passengers on the Ryanair flight that he fears for his life in Belarusian custody; both incidents, meanwhile, were breathtaking in their brazenness, and thus attracted a level of attention and condemnation that is not often afforded to more routine violations of press freedom. (Both also involved dictatorships snaking their tendrils beyond their typical spheres of domestic control, into a consulate in a third country and the sky, respectively.) There are also, however, important differences. Saudi Arabia is a US ally, which ultimately helped shield its top leadership from maximum accountability for killing Khashoggi. Belarus very much is not. While Western democracies are unlikely to have diplomatic reservations about punishing Lukashenko, their leverage over his regime is limited. To be sure, stringent airspace restrictions could further undercut Lukashenko’s legitimacy at home, but Western leaders already tried sanctions and loud condemnation around the election last year, and clearly failed to curb Lukashenko’s abuses. Belarus is now firmly ensconced, instead, in Russia’s orbit, and officials there have not publicly criticized the Ryanair hijacking. (The editor of RT even called it “beautiful.”) Lukashenko will reportedly meet with Vladimir Putin later this week.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

The last time I wrote about Belarus, in December, I mentioned some reasons for hope amid the bleak landscape. Those have become increasingly difficult to see. Back then, Russia had just urged Lukashenko to commit to constitutional reforms, and he had suggested that he might eventually step aside; unsurprisingly, he has not followed through. I also noted studies suggesting that Belarusians were abandoning state media en masse and instead getting their news from platforms like Tut.by and Telegram, and the brave reporters who populate such spaces; Lukashenko has now brought the hammer down on Tut.by and abducted Protasevich over his work on Telegram. All is not lost, of courseLukashenko can’t censor Telegram, which is encrypted; Protasevich’s colleagues, meanwhile, have revoked his access to their channel to stop law enforcement from seeing it. Brave journalism continues, and, as I wrote in December, it deserves our ongoing attention. It shouldn’t have taken the hijacking of a commercial airline to refocus it; now that we’re looking again, we must not look away.

Below, more on Belarus and press freedom globally:


Other notable stories:

ICYMI: Repression and Reciprocity in Russia

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.