The kidnap and detention of Belarusian journalist Roman Protasevich by the regime of President Aleksander Lukashenko has been highlighted as the most urgent case of injustice against journalists in June 2021 by the One Free Press Coalition.
Each month, the Coalition – which uses the collective audiences of member organisations to stand up for journalists under attack – releases a list of the 10 most pressing cases. Ahead of 20 June which is World Refugee Day, their list focuses on journalists who were forced into exile or to flee their homes.
On 23 May, Belarusian authorities diverted a commercial Ryan Air flight and forced it to land in the capital of Minsk. They then arrested Roman Protasevich and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega. Protasevich had been living outside of the country for some years and was the founder and editor of various Telegram channels that covered the 2020-2021 anti-Lukashenko protests.
He faces a number of serious charges which could potentially carry the penalty of the death sentence. Following the outrage over his kidnapping, the Belarusian authorities released a video of Protasevich “confessing” to his supposed crimes and stating that he was being treated well. The video was viewed with skepticism as many believe he is being tortured and was forced into making the statement.
Other cases on June’s list include Turkish journalist Can Dundar, the former editor in chief of opposition newspaper Cumhuriyet and radio station Ozguruz. Living in exile in Germany, he is appealing a 27.5-year prison sentence imposed as a result of his work.
Also highlighted was the plight of Natalia Zubkova, a Russian journalist who was forced into hiding with her family following an attack and several death threats. She left the country following her reports on protests and investigations into a real-estate scam that targeted disabled people.
Yesterday, a Media Freedom Coalition comprising of the governments of 28 world countries released a statement to condemn the “forced diversion and landing of a commercial aircraft and the subsequent arrest” of Protasevic.
The statement said the incident constitutes “a full-frontal attack on media freedom and has serious implications on the right of freedom of expression and opinion more broadly.” They said it is even more concerning when seen in the context of the “large scale campaign to silence independent voices in Belarus”.
They noted that some 400 journalists and media workers have faced repression in the country since the controversial Presidential election on 9 August 2020.
The Coalition, including governments such as the US, UK, Canada, Italy, New Zealand, Japan, and Iceland, call for the immediate and unconditional release of Protasevich as well as other detained media workers. They demanded accountability for those responsible.
“Media freedom is an important part of democratic societies and is essential to the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms,” they concluded.
Pressure was placed on the EU to act fast and impose sanctions on Belarus. A “strongly worded letter” was sent from the EP Media Working Group, co-led by Maltese MEP David Casa. It called for the EU to “walk the talk” and take concrete action over “state-sponsored terrorism”.
The EU agreed to adopt targeted sanctions including ones against individuals and entities related to the Lukashenko regime. The EU moved to ban Belarusian planes from the EU and Belarus responded by banning most citizens and foreign residents from leaving the country.
The exact whereabouts, mental state, and physical condition of Protasevich and Sapega are still not known.