Attack on democracy? The case of Belarusian journalist, Roman Protasevich

In a complex web of corruption and scandal, journalists have become the target of suppression for being the guardians of democracy. Joshua Bate reports on the developing events proceeding from the  unlawful arrest of Belarusian journalist, Roman Protasevich. 

When you travel through the sky, it is rational to assume that the flight will go as expected. However, for Roman Protasevich, A Belarusian journalist, this was not the case. 

A year after the elections took place in Belarus, Roman Protasevich departed on a  flight from Athens to Lithuania. However,  in an unexpected turn of events, the flight was grounded in Minsk. Moments later, Roman Protasevich,  an avid critic of Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko, was arrested after being removed from the plane. 

In this developing story, Belarus has been accused of hijacking the flight in an act of state terrorism to arrest and suppress the opposition views of Belarusian president Lukashenko. The Belarusian president is known for acts of electoral authoritarianism and the suppression of opposition which has cemented his control for 27 years. 

Prior to his arrest, Protasevich wrote for NEXTA, a Poland based news outlet with critical views of Belarusian Government. Now, he is charged with extremism after inciting and spreading social hatred towards Lukashenko’s regime during the 2020 Belarusian protests on August 9th. A social profile of Mr Protasevich depicts him as a serial protester, with claims of him being expelled from school. Yet is this justification for his arrest?  

In determining the legal status of this arrest, the laws of extraterritoriality are a brilliant way of analysing the capabilities of sovereign states. Whilst sovereign countries maintain and control jurisdiction over crimes within their country, international law, despite its nuances, would consider the arrest unlawful. Act 3(1) of the 1963 Tokyo Convention, states that the country in which the aircraft is registered has legal jurisdiction over its passengers with Article 4 claiming that “other parties may not interfere with an aircraft in flight in order to exercise its criminal jurisdiction of an offence committed on board”. 

With Vilnius (Lithuania) only being 15 miles from the border of Belarus, it is safe to assume that the flight was susceptible to interference. This comes moments after reports of Mig-29 fighter jets being deployed under Lukashenko’s orders to intercept the Ryanair flight and complete an emergency landing in Minsk airport. Ryanair’s CEO further claims that KGB agents had infiltrated the plane prior to taking off.

European leaders and US officials were swift to condemn the forced landing of the flight. 

The response from the international community reflects the natural protection of democracy across the world. In a European Council meeting, demands for the immediate release of both Roman and his partner were made alongside the banning of Belarusian flights over EU airspace. The Prime Minister of Poland had also labelled the event an act of state terrorism and Ryanair CEO called the grounding of the plane “a state sponsored hi-jacking”. 

The Belarusian leader claimed his country was justified in diverting the plane due to reports of a bomb threat and believed he acted legally to protect people’s lives. However, flight paths of the plane imply that Minsk was not the closest airport to complete an emergency landing and critics were swift to assume the arrest was predetermined. 

Speaking to parliamentarians, Lukashenko said, “As we predicted, our ill-wishers from outside and inside the country have changed the methods of attacking the state”. Opponents from both outside and within Belarus have been demanding Lukashenko’s resignation since he gained power in 1994, and to his supporters, this is the opposition using ‘false claims’ for political point scoring. 

What is yet to be determined is the safety of both Roman Protasevich and his partner, who was subsequently arrested. The mother of the arrested Belarusian journalist received unofficial reports that her son was hospitalised due to heart problems. Later, video footage was released of Mr Protasevich claiming he was in a pretrial detention facility in the Belarusian capital. Yet his family and friends believe he was coerced into talking. 

Whilst the story is unravelling, it remains clear that the targeting of journalists is a key feature of both national and foreign policy in a globalised world. The bombing of Daphne Caruana Galizia and the shooting of Giorgos Karaivaz are just two examples of the endless battle against corruption, with Roman Protasevich becoming the latest victim of an authoritarian regime. That being said, the response from the international community has been a step towards justice but by no means an end. The banning of flights from Belarus will hinder the country’s economic growth. But for authoritarian leaders who are interested in security, the response is not enough. 

If Belarus gets away with the hijacking of planes to suppress opposition views, it could provoke other regimes to see this as a new tool for control, stunting the new age of free media.   

Header image credit: CNN