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VILNIUS — Roman Protasevich knew something was wrong when Ryanair flight FR4978 that was supposed to take him from Athens to Vilnius diverted toward Minsk.
“Don’t do this. They will kill me. I am a refugee,” he reportedly told a flight attendant on Sunday as the airliner headed to the Belarusian capital escorted by a fighter jet.
He had reason to be afraid.
When the Ryanair plane eventually landed in Vilnius with a more than seven-hour delay, he was no longer on board. Both he and a female companion, Sofia Sapega, were reportedly arrested during the enforced stopover — an incident denounced by leaders around the world as a “hijacking.” Ryanair called the forced landing an “act of aviation piracy.”
The measures to seize Protasevich were extraordinary, and they now expose Belarus to the fury of the EU and U.S. and to potential sanctions, but for Alexander Lukashenko, the longtime leader of Belarus, the threat posed by Protasevich and other bloggers and journalists is extraordinary as well.
Protasevich, 26, is among a group of inventive journalists who have detailed the violence used by forces loyal to Lukashenko to help him hang on to power. They’ve also covered the mass protests sparked by the August presidential elections — widely considered to have been stolen by Lukashenko — and also actively coordinated them.
Last year, Protasevich was editor-in-chief of Warsaw-based Nexta Live, a social media channel on Telegram, a cloud-based encrypted messaging application created by two Russian engineers that’s become the favored way of organizing anti-Lukashenko protests.
Nexta Live, which currently has 1.2 million subscribers, was founded by another Belarusian opposition journalist, Stepan Putilo, whose pen name is Svetlov.
“We often remain the only source of information on what’s going on in the country,” Svetlov told POLITICO in an interview from his Warsaw headquarters in late August. Nexta has given instructions on where protesters should gather and warned them of actions by the security forces — providing key direction to an opposition that is largely leaderless as most opposition figures are either under arrest or in exile.
That’s prompted the government to see bloggers as a key security threat. Lukashenko has denounced Telegram channels as “fake news and forgeries.” On Monday, he signed a new law on media and mass gatherings that makes it difficult to organize demonstrations and makes it illegal for reporters to cover them. “Reporters cannot act as organizers or participants of mass events in the course of their work,” reported the Belta news agency.
In October, a court in Minsk added Nexta Live and even its logo to the government list of “extremist” information organizations, which means that republishing or quoting its news content in the Belarusian media is considered a crime.
One month later, Belarusian authorities accused both Putilo and Protasevich of steering mass riots, which were accompanied by “mass violence and armed resistance to the authorities,” as well as inciting social hatred. Minsk urged the Polish government to extradite the journalists, who had applied for asylum, “at the earliest possible moment, taking into account the special public danger of their criminal activity.” Warsaw refused.
In November, the journalists published a copy of a Belarusian KGB document, showing they were on the security agency’s official list of terrorists.
In recent months, Protasevich shifted to Lithuania, where he edited another opposition Telegram channel called Belamova, which currently has 260,000 subscribers.
This April, a court in Belarus also added Belamova to the list of “extremist” media for its “regular calls for riots and street protests” in order to destabilize the situation in the country and change the constitutional order.
That made Protasevich a target as he flew to Vilnius over Belarus.
“A bomb alert, which turned out to be false, was a special operation to catch our editor-in-chief. By personal order of Lukashenko, an international flight was interrupted,” the Belamova channel said in a statement following his arrest.
“But we continue to work as usual, and we will do it until we win,” the statement read. “It is our mission and duty — to carry the truth and fight against the evil that creates absolute terror in our country.”
In recent months, both Lithuania and Poland have received Belarusian refugees fleeing the Lukashenko regime. Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, Lukashenko’s main rival during the presidential election, is in exile in Vilnius. Her husband Sergei, a popular blogger, is in prison in Belarus; he was arrested last year after saying he would challenge Lukashenko in the election.
Protasevich was in Athens on holiday and to cover Tikhanovskaya’s visit there before flying back to Lithuania.
Belarus ranks 158 out of 180 countries in press freedom, according to the annual ranking by the NGO Reporters Without Borders.
“Belarus is the most dangerous country in Europe for media personnel. Critical journalists and bloggers are subjected to threats and violence and are arrested in large numbers,” it said.