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.
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.
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 course—Lukashenko 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:
- Airspace: Nieman Lab’s Joshua Benton compares airspace to the internet, in that they are both “shared-but-contested spaces beset by conflicting interests.” In such spaces, he writes, “freedom is hardly guaranteed to win out, no matter how idealistic its conventions.” Writing in The Atlantic, meanwhile, Anne Applebaum warns that if Lukashenko gets away with hijacking the Ryanair flight, other regimes will start copying the tactic. “Invariably, others will seek to use it,” she writes, “if only because it sends a message to their dissident and exile communities: You are not safe. You are never safe. Not even if you live in a democracy; not even if you have political asylum; not even if you are sitting on a commercial plane, thousands of feet above the ground.”
- Russia: For CJR, Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, examines Russia’s legal pursuit of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, a US-funded broadcaster that has racked up massive fines for supposed violations of Russia’s foreign-agent laws. In modern Russia, “government regulation is the primary tool of oppression,” Simon writes. “Unfortunately, US authorities have handed Russia the perfect cover for its repressive strategy—reciprocal enforcement of laws requiring certain media to register as foreign agents.” (The US government told the Russian state broadcasters RT and Sputnik to register as foreign agents in 2017.)
- Myanmar: Yesterday, authorities in Myanmar arrested Danny Fenster, an American journalist who is the managing editor of Frontier Myanmar, an independent news site, as he sought to leave the country to travel to Malaysia. Frontier Myanmar said that it has not been told why Fenster was detained, and has been unable to contact him. The country’s ruling military junta has systematically restricted independent journalism since taking power in a coup earlier this year. (I wrote about the situation for Myanmar’s press last month, and E. Tammy Kim interviewed Swe Win, editor of Myanmar Now, for CJR.)
- Turkey: In recent weeks, Sedat Peker, a Turkish mafia boss who lives in exile abroad, has posted a series of videos to YouTube in which he has implicated high-ranking current and former Turkish officials in a variety of crimes, including the murders, in the nineties, of the journalists Ugur Mumcu and Kutlu Adali, and the rape, two years ago, of a female journalist who was later found dead. Reporters Without Borders and the Turkish Journalists’ Union have called on the Turkish authorities to investigate Peker’s allegations. Agence France-Presse has more.
Other notable stories:
- Today marks one year since Derek Chauvin, a white police officer, murdered George Floyd in Minneapolis. On Sunday, members of Floyd’s family marched in the city with activists and the relatives of other victims of police brutality; today, they will meet privately with Biden at the White House, though they will not mark the passage of a police-reform bill bearing Floyd’s name that Biden hoped to have signed by this date. (The bill remains stalled in Congress.) Also today, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune printed “A Year of Reckoning,” a special section marking “Floyd’s life, and the movement ignited following his death.” Inside, Maya Rao checks in with Floyd’s family in Houston, and Myron Medcalf asks whether “powerful white Minnesotans” are truly committed to change.
- Yesterday, following an easing of coronavirus restrictions for vaccinated Americans, the White House expanded the capacity of its briefing room to fifty percent; twenty-four reporters attended a briefing with Jen Psaki, the press secretary, and were not required to wear masks. One asked Psaki about Biden’s public pledge that he will not allow his Justice Department to surveil reporters; Psaki declined to say whether Biden had spoken with Merrick Garland, the attorney general, but called his comments “clear.” Elsewhere, the Post’s Ashley Parker has some reporting on Biden’s media habits: he doesn’t watch much TV, but does put on CNN or MSNBC while working out; he regularly reviews local news; and he has been known to enjoy nonpolitical stories, including about a giant moth.
- Fallout continues from the AP’s firing of Emily Wilder, a news associate in Arizona, following a right-wing pressure campaign focused on her past activism around Israel and Palestine. The AP said that it fired Wilder for violations of its social-media policy during her time on staff, but didn’t specify what she’d done wrong. Yesterday, more than a hundred AP employees wrote management demanding an explanation, updates to the social-media policy, and a commitment to support staff against “harassment campaigns”; AP bosses have pledged to review the social-media policy with staff. Also yesterday, Sally Buzbee, the AP’s executive editor who is soon headed to the Post, said that she is no longer running day-to-day operations, and thus had no involvement in Wilder’s firing.
- The Post’s Jeremy Barr profiles Rashida Jones, who took over as president of MSNBC in February, and is now “thinking about how to mint more MSNBC fans of all ages by publishing content across a multitude of platforms and formats, not just the traditional television channel.” That, Barr writes, “means a new focus on streaming,” which attracts younger audiences than cable—though the success of the strategy remains to be seen.
- James Poniewozik, TV critic at the Times, assesses the “post-embarrassment media campaign” of Andrew Yang, the New York mayoral candidate. Yang has committed “an endless cycle of gaffes and self-owns” that have somehow entrenched him as a favorite despite his lack of political experience, Poniewozik writes. “After every incident, he may or may not have gotten more formidable. But after every incident, he got more famous.”
- Recently, to make a point about the growth of sponsored content masquerading as local news, the comedian John Oliver tricked TV stations in Colorado, Texas, and Utah into running segments about a fake “sexual wellness blanket” integrating “cutting-edge technology” developed in Nazi Germany. The stations in Colorado and Texas told CNN that they are reviewing their practices; the Utah station declined to offer any comment.
- A judge in Florida ordered Jason Miller, a spokesperson for former President Trump, to pay G/O Media more than forty-thousand dollars in legal fees after he unsuccessfully sued the company for defamation. Splinter, a G/O-owned site that is now defunct, reported in 2018 on allegations, in court documents, that Miller drugged a pregnant woman with an abortion pill. The Daily Beast’s Roger Sollenberger has more details.
- And Pope Francis appeared to question the relevance and reach of the Vatican’s in-house media outlets—Vatican Radio and the newspaper L’Osservatore Romano—while visiting their offices yesterday. Paolo Ruffini, who oversees the outlets, told Vatican News that the Pope told staffers at the newspaper to “let themselves be slapped by reality.” The AP’s Nicole Winfield has more details.