Following the publication of a “confession” video from kidnapped Belarusian journalist Roman Protasevich, various media freedom and human rights defenders have spoken out against the flagrant violation of his rights, and the clear attempt to silence and harass independent voices.
Protasevich was onboard a Ryanair flight from Greece to Lithuania on Sunday when Belarusian authorities claimed there was a bomb on board and demanded the plane land in Minsk. They held the plane for some hours, arrested Protasevich and his girlfriend, and disembarked another four passengers believed to be Russians. The plane was then allowed to continue on its way.
Yesterday, Belarusian authorities released a video of Protasevich on local media. In the video, he appears with hands clasped and black bags under his eyes. He speaks fast, declares that he has been treated lawfully while under arrest, and ‘confesses’ to the charges against him.
Members of the European Parliament (EP) from various political groups called on the European Council and Commission to suspend all flights over Belarussian airspace, to suspend all air connections between the EU and Belarus, and to start a full inquiry into the breaches of international aviation rules.
These demands were made in a “strongly worded letter” from the EP Media Working Group that is co-chaired by Maltese MEP David Casa.
“What happened yesterday is outrageous. Today’s European Council should take concrete action against the illegitimate regime of Aleksander Lukashenko. What we saw yesterday is state-sponsored terrorism: a hijack of a flight between an EU capital to another EU capital, so that a journalist and his partner are arrested. Both should be released from Belarus as soon as possible,” Casa said.
He added that it is “high time that the EU walked the talk,” noting he expects concrete action and a united front against “illegitimate regimes and in protecting journalists”.
The EU agreed to adopt more targeted economic sanctions and the European Council will draw up a list of people and entities to be considered. They have also called on the International Civil Aviation Organisations (ICAO) to investigate the decision taken by Minsk, to force the Ryanair plane to land.
— David Casa (@DavidCasaMEP) May 24, 2021
‘Hello, my name is Roman Protasevich’
“Hello, my name is Roman Protasevich. Yesterday I was detained by the Ministry of Internal Affairs at the National Airport. Now I am in the Minsk Detention Centre No.1. I have no health problems, including with my heart and other parts of my body. The staff has treated me correctly and lawfully. I will continue to cooperate with the investigation. I confess to organising mass riots.”
The Committee to Protect Journalists reacted to the video by calling it an attempt to harass and detain independent voices.
“By first diverting a commercial flight and then airing a ‘confession’ video to silence Pratasevich, the Belarusian government has shown that it will cross any red line to harass and detain independent voices…" @gulnozas https://t.co/zFlUH97Pp8
— CPJ Europe and Central Asia (@CPJ_Eurasia) May 24, 2021
The international press freedom organisation stated the Belarusian authorities must release Protasevich immediately, make sure he receives any necessary medical treatment, and allow him and his partner to leave the country as soon as possible.
Christopher Deloire, Secretary-General of Reporters Without Borders, called the broadcast of the video a “flagrant violation of the right to dignity and integrity of the person”. He added he fears that Protasevich has been the victim of ill-treatment and torture and was forced to film the video.
“With the dissemination of this video, Lukashenko completes the exclusion of international legality: after the electoral hold-up, arbitrary arrests, and trials, it is now kidnapping by hijacking and forced confessions on television. We ask the question: how far will we let it go?” he added.
The broadcast of this video constitutes a flagrant violation of the right to the dignity and integrity of the person. We can easily imagine that Roman Protassevich was forced to engage in this exercise. We fear he was the victim of ill-treatment and torture. #PressFreedom https://t.co/7lBBG2Enhm
— Christophe Deloire (@cdeloire) May 24, 2021
The 26-year-old journalist is facing charges of extremism, including inciting social hatred, organising riots, and masterminding the protests that started last year. He claimed innocence prior to yesterday’s video, and up to 15 years in prison, or potentially the death penalty.
Belarus – the most dangerous country for journalists in Europe
Belarus is the most dangerous country in Europe for media personnel, according to Reporters Without Borders.
“Critical journalists and bloggers are subjected to threats and violence and are arrested in large numbers… Leading news websites are blocked. The print media are censored and access to information is restricted. Since the disputed presidential election in August 2020, the few independent media outlets have been hounded by police trying to prevent coverage of the huge street protests. They were already harassed by the authorities, fined, and forced into exile, but they had not previously been persecuted on this scale,” the international press freedom organisation said.
The country has been subject to various sanctions from the EU, US, and the UK since 2004 following the disappearance of two opposition politicians, a businessman and a journalist. Restrictions include a travel ban and asset freeze against some 88 people linked to Lukashenko.
Teresa Ribeiro, the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Human Rights Watch, and Bill Browder, author, and head of the Global Magnitsky Justice Campaign, as well as EU Vice-President for Values and Transparency Vera Jourova, all condemned the incident and called for justice.
President of the European Commission (EC) Ursula von der Leyen also warned there would be consequences and that the matter would be discussed within the EU.