On 23 May, a Ryanair plane was forced to land before it could reach its destination. Instead of coming down in Lithuania as intended, the plane was told it must perform an emergency landing in Minsk due to a suspected security threat.
When the plane landed in Belarus, police instead detained one of the passengers. Roman Protasevich, a blogger who has criticised the authoritarian regime of president Alexander Lukashenko, was taken into custody in Belarus.
He reportedly told another passenger before he was arrested:
I’m facing the death penalty here.
His whereabouts are now unknown.
In more than a year of coronavirus cover-ups and political unrest, these kinds of arrests of journalists are beginning more common – not just in Belarus, but across the world.
“Reprehensible act of state terrorism”
The plane was apparently only two minutes from Lithuanian airspace when it was hijacked. According to the government press service, Lukashenko gave the order to divert the plane, escorted by a scrambled military jet.
Belarus has accused Protasevich of ‘inciting social hatred and organising mass riots’. He was a former editor on Poland-based Telegram channels Nexta and Nexta Live, which covered the anti-Lukashenko protests last year.
Protasevich denies the charges, which could see him face up to 15 years in prison.
His arrest has been widely condemned by Europe and the US, some calling it an act of “state terror”. The US and EU demanded Protasevich’s immediate release. Leaders have asked for a full investigation and have banned flights over Belarus.
“An attack on democracy”
Protasevich isn’t the first journalist to be imprisoned by the Lukashenka regime.
Authority forces detained many journalists during the protests. Some were fined. Others faced more serious charges. As of December 2020, at least 10 journalists were imprisoned in Belarus.
This has continued into 2021, with at least 16 journalists detained in a short period at the end of March.
Chair of the foreign affairs select committee, Tom Tugendhat, said:
This isn’t just a story about Belarus or one journalist. It’s a direct assault on the liberties of all of us. If aircraft can be forced to the ground, if aircraft can be diverted from their course in order to punish the political opponents of tyrants, then journalists here in the UK, politicians anywhere in Europe, will find it harder to speak out. …
This is a direct assault on all of us. An attack on democracy and freedom of speech.
An increasingly hostile environment
Indeed, this has in no way been limited to Belarus. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), 2020 was a record year in terms of the number of journalists imprisoned across the world.
The committee found that 274 journalists were in jail in December 2020. The worst offenders were China, Turkey, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, though the number of journalists imprisoned has risen significantly in both Belarus and Ethiopia.
It attributes the increase in arrests, in part, to governments trying to cover up reporting of the pandemic and opposition to political unrest.
Even in the US – CPJ found no journalists imprisoned in December 2020, but 110 had been arrested of criminally charged. Around 300 had been assaulted.
In December 2020, CPJ executive director Joel Simon, said:
It’s shocking and appalling that we are seeing a record number of journalists imprisoned in the midst of a global pandemic. This wave of repression is a form of censorship that is disrupting the flow of information and fuelling the infodemic. With COVID 19 raging through the world’s prison, it’s also putting the lives of journalists at risk.
2020 also saw the killing of at least 30 journalists. 21 of these were specifically murdered in response to their reporting – double the 10 who were murdered in 2019.
At the time of reporting, CPJ were still investigating the deaths of 15 more journalists.
Members of the press are no safer in 2021; five journalists have already been killed. CPJ designated four of these deaths as murder.
It’s appalling that the murders of journalists have more than doubled in the last year, and this escalation represents a failure of the international community to confront the scourge of impunity.
He further argued:
The fact that murder is on the rise and the number of journalists imprisoned around the world hit a record is a clear demonstration that press freedom is under unprecedented assault in the midst of a global pandemic, in which information is essential. We must come together to reverse this terrible trend.
Featured image via YouTube/BBC News
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