The audacity of the Belarusian diversion of an international flight in order to arrest a dissident journalist rightly drew global headlines and global condemnation this week. But it’s not exactly news that President Aleksandr Lukashenko will go to ruthless lengths to stifle independent reporting and freedom of speech.
First elected in 1994, by 1997 he’d already worked his way onto the Ten Worst Enemies of the Press global listing by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). Later, when the group switched its annual “worst” tally to naming the Ten Most Censored Countries in the world, Belarus was a regular fixture on that list, too.
European Union leaders have moved swiftly to impose sanctions aimed at forcing Lukashenko to release Raman Pratasevich, a former administrator of the Nexta Live Telegram channel. Nexta, based in Poland, has been a vital source of information for Belarusians through months of mass demonstrations surrounding the tainted August 2020 elections that kept Lukashenko, 66, in office for a sixth term.
The EU sanctions are a strong first step, and if they ultimately help free Pratasevich, it would be a victory for press freedom. But it would be a missed opportunity if his release were the only gain for the beleaguered Belarusian media. In the nine months since Lukashenko claimed his dubious victory, journalists have been detained hundreds of times, dozens have been beaten by police, several are serving jail sentences and an unknown number have fled into exile — all consequences for their reporting on the widespread, peaceful opposition to Lukashenko, often dubbed “Europe’s Last Dictator.”
Before this week, none of these journalists, including Pratasevich, were household names outside of Belarus. But of the handful of media outlets trying to give Belarusians an information alternative to state propaganda, Nexta was already “a darling of international media,” according to Current Time, a digital news platform funded by the U.S. Agency for Global Media. Media outlets around the world began to tell its story after Nexta staff told the independent Russian news site The Bell that it had gone from 300,000 subscribers at the beginning of August to almost 1.8 million in a matter of days. The Bell called it “the media breakthrough of the year.”
The metrics may be less impressive at Tut.by, a Belarusian news portal that also runs a popular Telegram channel, but Lukashenko has been no less determined to silence its voice. A week ago government financial investigators raided Tut.by offices in three cities, as well as the homes of some of its journalists, allegedly gathering evidence for a tax evasion case. Ten staffers were detained, Tut.by’s website was pulled offline (because, says the Ministry of Information, it posted banned information and collaborated with an unregistered human rights group), and its chief editor, Maryna Zolatava, could face 10 years in prison on the tax allegations.
“It’s clear that authorities’ only real motive is to censor Belarus’ premier independent news website out of fear of its reporting,” Gulnoza Said, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator, said of the attacks on Tut.by.
A few days before the Tut.by raids, Said testified before a bipartisan congressional human rights caucus about the abysmal conditions for Belarusian journalists. She shared data from the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ), a group that miraculously has managed to keep documenting repressions through a quarter century of Lukashenko’s rule.
Between August 2020 and March 2021, BAJ recorded more than 400 detentions of journalists, some detained and released several times over the months of protests that followed August’s elections. CPJ’s Said also highlighted longer-term detentions, like the two journalists for Poland-based satellite broadcaster Belsat who were convicted this year of “organizing and preparing actions that grossly violate public order.” What they were actually doing when arrested last November was continuing to cover the opposition protests that had stretched from summer into fall and winter.
Other Belarusian journalistic voices have been sidelined less brutally, but perhaps no less effectively. Some report from exile, where — until this week — they felt safe from arrest. Some left jobs in state media in August, as a form of personal protest.
“I am leaving because I am ashamed,” a photographer for a state-owned newspaper told CPJ late last August, noting the blind eye her employer turned to the mass arrests and brutal police violence used against thousands of peaceful protestors. (Here’s how journalists in Belarus and three other countries resist government intimidation.)
This past year has surely been the direst period for press freedom in Lukashenko’s Belarus. But even a quick scroll through CPJ’s voluminous Belarus archives is a reminder that this crisis has been building for decades.
Beginning in 1997, the press freedom group has documented a steady stream of arrests, newsroom raids, beatings and other repressive actions against media. Things often escalate when Lukashenko is running for re-election. In such periods, his government has blocked websites, shut down the Internet and deported foreign correspondents — all in order to prevent unfavorable coverage of a dictator.
The Pratasevich arrest may be Lukashenko’s most outlandish act of repression. His only notable defender so far is Russia, Belarus’s financial and political benefactor, which has a press freedom record nearly as repressive as Lukashenko’s.
But the hijacking of Pratasevich’s flight is far from the only anti-press action that world leaders should seek to redress. Calls for one journalist’s freedom need to be coupled with demands that all media in Belarus — and all who oppose Lukashenko’s continued rule — are freed to report and speak, without fear of reprisal.
Ann Cooper was a 2020 Joan Shorenstein Fellow at Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy. She served as executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists from 1998 until June 2006 and, professor emerita at the Columbia University School of Journalism.