There has rightly been international condemnation of the arrest of Roman Protasevich after his Ryanair flight from Greece to Lithuania was diverted to Belarusian capital Minsk. It is of particular concern that the state hijacking of Flight FR4978 was carried out on the personal orders of President Alexander Lukashenko. His disgraceful “confession” on state TV comes straight from the authoritarian playbook.
The 26-year-old has been described in a single report on the BBC as a “Belarusian opposition journalist”, a “dissident” and an “activist”. This extraordinary young man is all these things and more. But it is important that the western media does not let the Belarus regime define the narrative.
Protasevich is an independent journalist, but to be so in Belarus is to immediately become an activist. And, meanwhile, the regime is in the process of defining all activists as terrorists. Index has been reporting for months on the systematic crackdown on independent journalism by the Lukashenko regime. Hijacking is just the latest method to control free expression in Belarus.
British MP Tom Tugendhat (chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee) has described the arrest as a “warlike act”, and this is no understatement. He has emphasised that a hijacking is an escalation of the situation. But we should not lose sight of why Protasevich represented such a threat. It is because he was a journalist the regime has not been able to control since he fled the country for Poland in 2019.
Protasevich is the former editor of Nexta, a media organisation that works via the social media platfrom Telegram, which circumvents censorship in Belarus. Nexta was instrumental in reporting on the opposition to Lukashenko during the elections of 2020. Until this week Protasevich had been working for another Telegram channel Belamova. Like the underground “samizdat” publications of the Soviet era, these Telegram channels provided much-needed hope to civil society in Belarus.
Parallels have been drawn between Russian dissident Alexei Navalny and Roman Protasevich and it is true that he provides a similar focus for the Belarusian opposition. However, he has been targeted not as a political leader, but as a journalist. It is as a journalist that we should defend him.