This weekend, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko effectively plucked a commercial airliner from the skies — a Polish-registered aircraft flying for an Irish airline between two European Union capitals — to arrest blogger and journalist Roman Protasevich. The 26-year-old’s channel on Telegram, a messaging app like WhatsApp, has served as one of the most critical conduits of information since the sham election held in Belarus last August.
What happens when a Chinese journalist critical of the country’s government is on a U.S. carrier flying over Chinese airspace? Could Chinese officials decide to force the aircraft to land?
The scheme involved Belarusian air traffic control informing the Ryanair pilots flying over its airspace that there was an explosive on board and Lukashenko dispatching a fighter jet to escort the plane to land in the Belarusian capital Minsk, even though the call about the bomb was a ruse.
Besides the gross illegality of dispatching a fighter jet and phoning in a phony bomb threat, the brazen attack on Protasevich, media freedom and the flying public represents a serious escalation in authoritarian leaders’ quest to punish critics beyond — or in this case high above — their borders. As such, it requires a similarly dramatic response, including an escalation in the world’s efforts to protect writers and journalists who dare to criticize the powerful.
It’s important to understand why exactly Protasevich became a target. Since he was a teenager, he has been part of a bold coterie of Belarusian free expression defenders, journalists, writers and bloggers who’ve put their own lives and livelihoods on the line to battle an increasingly repressive regime. Closely allied with its neighbor Russia, Belarus is often described as the last dictatorship in Europe, having been run with an iron fist by Lukashenko since 1994.
From self-imposed exile in Lithuania, Protasevich managed two crucial Telegram channels that provided independent, live coverage of the bogus election last summer and the massive, citizen-led protest movement that has rocked the country and threatened the rule of Lukashenko. Indeed, Protasevich’s influence is now dramatically clear, given the lengths Lukashenko has gone to capture him.
Lukashenko’s ability to hold on to power over the past three decades is intimately connected to his ability to control information and squelch dissent. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Belarus has had a limited free press and narrow space for free expression. Lukashenko has thus been able to tightly control information, along with the country’s media.
But technology — and the will of Belarus’ writers and journalists — have outpaced Lukashenko’s control. That came to a head last summer, when instead of acquiescing to yet another stolen election, Belarus’ populace rose up, communicating across borders and sidestepping censorship to reveal the extent of Lukashenko’s malfeasance and cruelty. Risking their own safety, citizen journalists documented the screams of torture victims from within prison walls in the capital Minsk.
For 10 months now, the country has been in political limbo, subject to punishing sanctions, including travel bans and asset freezes, by the U.S., the E.U. and certain E.U. countries, the U.K. and Canada. However, with the support of his longtime patron Russia, Lukashenko has nonetheless tightened his stranglehold, arresting thousands and putting hundreds on trial, shuttering media outlets and just this week signing yet another set of laws that would dramatically shrink the space for media and civil society. His effort extends well outside his own borders, as he seeks ways to shut down writers and truth-tellers not just in Belarus, but also wherever they reside.
We’ve seen this tactic elsewhere. China has for years spirited away dissidents on vacation outside mainland China; Russia poisons critics hundreds of miles from the country’s nearest borders; Saudi Arabia murdered exiled journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside its consulate in Istanbul.
But Lukashenko has done something other dictators have rarely attempted: using the threat of terrorism to ground a commercial flight, effectively threatening the lives of passengers by using a fighter jet to divert their plane, all to arrest one man and his girlfriend returning from a conference in Athens.
Lukashenko has upped the ante. Additional sanctions or directives by the E.U. to effectively close Belarusian airspace, while essential and important first steps, are likely not powerful enough to counter his shameful gambit — nor sufficient to prevent his fellow authoritarians from using similar tactics in the future.
The E.U., the U.S. and other democracies must double down on their commitment to protect journalists and writers, especially those being targeted beyond the borders of their homelands. The fact that the Belarus surveillance of Protasevich first noticed in the Athens airport speaks volumes about the lack of protection E.U. countries provide for journalists who risk their safety to inform others. Members of the U.N. Human Rights Council should push for a resolution condemning this increasing global pattern of extraterritorial attacks.
While sanctions must continue, as long as Russia stays aligned with Lukashenko, their impact will be muted. The E.U., the U.S. and the U.N. should also employ sanctions that target Russia, and international investigators must get to the bottom of the involvement of Russian intelligence in this weekend’s operations. Would Lukashenka have risked so much without Russia President Vladimir Putin’s blessing? Unlikely.
Airlines and foreign countries are already restricting flights and calling for reductions in the amount of time spent in Belarusian airspace, but serious consideration also needs to be given to how such restrictions could maroon dissidents in Belarus who may need to escape as the hammer comes down. Belarus cannot be totally isolated from international travel; freedom of movement is essential for the security of journalists and dissidents, as well as the flow of information in and out of the country.
Belarus cannot be totally isolated from international travel; freedom of movement is essential for the security of journalists and dissidents.
Airlines and the International Civil Aviation Organization both need to come out strongly against this profound threat to the flying public. What happens when a Chinese journalist critical of the country’s government is on a U.S. carrier flying over Chinese airspace? Could Chinese officials decide to force the aircraft to land or, worse, bring the aircraft down through other means? The consequences for international travel, for peace and security, for the safety of the flying public and for freedom of speech, thought and the press are all on the line.
Roman Protasevich has now appeared in a hostage-like video, proclaiming that his jailers are treating him well. We know this likely isn’t the case. The Lukashenko regime has been unafraid to detain, torture and kill those who threaten their power. Unless the world stands up to this travesty, it will surely only lead to further escalation that puts even more journalists and dissidents at risk.