Opposition blogger and activist Roman Protasevich, who is accused of participating in an unsanctioned protest at the Kuropaty preserve, arrives for a court hearing in Minsk, Belarus April 10, 2017. Picture taken April 10, 2017. REUTERS/Stringer
First video of detained Belarusian activist released
02:37 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Gulnoza Said is the Europe and Central Asia program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists. The views expressed here are her own. Read more opinion at CNN.

CNN  — 

The arrest of Belarusian journalist and activist Roman Protasevich on Sunday should not have come as a surprise to anyone following events in the former Soviet republic. We at the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) have been documenting for a year the arrests, imprisonment, beatings and other violations of reporters who were persecuted in that country simply for doing their job.

Gulnoza Said

Yet even knowing what we did of the situation, the action to divert a Ryanair Athens-Vilnius flight to the Belarus capital of Minsk – where Protasevich was detained – is shocking.

Europe’s last dictator, Aleksander Lukashenko, has long been an enemy of independent media. Last year, he stepped up censorship after claiming victory in the contested presidential election of August 9 – a claim widely seen as fraudulent and which set off a wave of giant protests. Protasevich was the co-founder of NEXTA, one of the most popular channels on the Telegram messaging app and a leading source of information on the anti-Lukashenko protests.

The international community has rightfully cried foul, with some airlines now avoiding Belarus air space and activists in Belarus and abroad urging democratic foreign governments and international organizations to punish the Lukashenko regime.

Meanwhile, my focus remains on trying to get information about whether Protasevich is OK, whether he has a lawyer and whether his rights are being violated in detention. On Monday, the journalist’s mother, Nataliya Protasevich, told CPJ that she learned from an unnamed source that her son was taken to a hospital because of his chronic heart condition. (Nataliya Protasevich told us she did not want to identify that person out of fear for their safety.)

Later, a 29-second video emerged on the pro-government Telegram channel Zhyoltiye Slivy showing Protasevich saying that Belarusian authorities are treating him “correctly” and “lawfully.” Protasevich, who appears to have bruises or scuff marks on his face, says in the video – headlined ‘I confess’ – that he does not have any health issues and added that he is being held in the Minsk pre-trial detention center #1. Protasevich also said that he is “cooperating with investigators and continue(s) confessing to organizing mass riots in the city of Minsk.”

Belarusian authorities said last November that the charges against him included “organizing mass riots” and “group activities that grossly violate public order.” Sviatlana Tikhanouvskaya, a Belarusian opposition leader and a 2020 presidential candidate, said in a tweet that Protasevich faced the death penalty.

Protasevich’s detention came soon after the May 18 raid and shutdown of another major online media outlet, Tut.by. and detentions of at least 10 of its staff, including three journalists. Its chief editor Maryna Zolatava remains in jail on what we believe are spurious tax evasion charges and could face up to 10 years in prison if found guilty.

On May 19, Tut.by correspondent Katsiaryna Barysevich was released from prison after serving six months for reporting on protests in November – only to learn that her colleagues were in jail and her media outlet was shuttered. On May 21, Belarusian authorities raided the studios of another prominent media outlet – Belsat, a Poland-based satellite broadcaster, which has also been reporting on anti-Lukashenko protests. Two of its journalists – reporter Katsiaryna Andreyeva and camerawoman Daria Chultsova – are serving two-year sentences for providing live coverage of protests in November.

Before his May 23 arrest, Protasevichwas running a Telegram channel called Belarus golovnogo mozga – Belarus of the Brain – after founder Ihar Losik was arrested before the August elections; he too is facing years in prison. Losik, who was also a consultant for the US. Congress-funded broadcaster Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, survived what his wife told Russia’s independent Novaya Gazeta were suicide attempts earlier this year and went on hunger strike trying to draw attention to his plight.

Belarusian independent media have never been allowed to operate freely but managed to develop despite the hurdles the regime created since Lukashenko came to power in 1994. Imprisonments of critics and opponents are not new tactics: he used them in previous elections, and in the months and weeks before the 2020 vote by jailing the main candidates for the presidency.

Now, Pratasevich’s life could be in danger and the survival of independent media as a whole is at stake. Many journalists who are not in jail fled Belarus and are trying to find ways and funding to continue journalism from abroad. Those remaining in Belarus have to work under constant pressure of the state censorship machine that just demonstrated for them that even flying over Belarus could land them in Lukashenko’s cells.

The world community must respond to Lukashenko’s single-handed raising of the stakes on Sunday.

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    Governments should impose strictly targeted sanctions against government officials of all levels – from Lukashenko to prison guards known for brutal treatment of journalist inmates, as well as against state-owned companies and Lukashenko cronies inside and outside the country. Belarus has strong political, economic and security ties with Russia, and some observers believe Russia’s FSB helped Belarus’ KGB in the operation to arrest Pratasevich. (Russian Presidential Spokesperson Dmitriy Peskov refused to comment on the RyanAir diversion on Monday, according to the Russian state agency Interfax. When asked about whether Russian special services were involved in the operation, he said “This is the last thing I’d like to comment on.”)

    Providing support to in-country and exiled media outlets, journalists, press freedom and human rights organizations is the only way to guarantee we can continue to receive objective information about media crackdowns and human rights violations in Belarus. But first and foremost, world leaders must demand the immediate and unconditional release of Protasevich and all other journalists in Belarusian jails.