From teenage activist to specter of the Belarusian regime

Belarusian journalist Roman Protasevich, who was detained in Belarus after the Ryanair flight he was on was diverted and forced to land on Sunday, began his digital activism in his teens.

A student at the time, he was arrested in 2012 at the age of just 17 for running two groups on the Russian social networking site Vkontakte against Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.

One of them was called “We are sick of this Lukashenko” – the former collective farm manager who has ruled Belarus with an iron fist since 1994, a year before Protasevich was born.

“They hit me in the kidneys and liver,” Protasevich said at the time.

‘I urinated blood for three days after that. They threatened to charge me with unsolved murders. “

During the interrogation, he said, agents of the Belarusian security service, still called the KGB as in Soviet times, asked for his passwords from the online groups.

This photo, taken in Minsk on March 25, 2012, shows former editor of Belarusian opposition Telegram channel ‘@nexta_tv’ Roman Protassevitch at the ‘Freedom Day’ rally. © Stringer, AFP / File

He later worked as a photographer for Belarusian media and received a Vaclav Havel Journalism Fellowship in 2017-2018 – an award for aspiring independent journalists named after the late Czech dissident who became president.

Protasevich left Belarus in 2019 after starting work for the highly influential pro-opposition Telegram channel Nexta (“Somebody” in Belarusian).

He later became editor-in-chief of the channel, which currently has more than 1.2 million subscribers.

The channel played a role in organizing the anti-Lukashenko protests by sharing details on meeting times and dates with its followers.

‘First terrorist journalist’

Living between Poland and Lithuania, both hubs for Belarusian exiles, he has since become the editor of the BGM channel – short for “Smart Belarus” in Russian – which has 260,000 subscribers.

The girlfriend of 26-year-old Sofia Sapega, who was held with him, is studying law at the European Humanities University (EHU) in Vilnius.

Protasevich reported on the 2020 presidential election in which opposition challenger Svetlana Tikhanovskaya took on Lukashenko.

The regime forced @ Ryanair plane landing in Minsk to arrest journalist and activist Raman Pratasevich. He is facing the death penalty in Belarus. We demand immediate release of Raman, @ ICAO investigation and sanctions against Belarus.

– Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya (@Tsihanouskaya) May 23, 2021

Unprecedented mass protests erupted after Lukashenko declared victory again and authorities responded with violence.

Belarus issued an arrest warrant in November to arrest Protasevich for his work for Nexta, stating that he was “involved in terrorist activities”.

On his Twitter profile, he mockingly describes himself as “the first terrorist journalist in history”.

Terror crimes can carry the death penalty in Belarus, which still has the death penalty.

After the plane was diverted and arrived in Minsk for landing on Sunday, passengers heard him say that “he was in danger of being sentenced to death.”

His latest tweet on May 16 was about photographing Tikhanovskaya’s visit to Athens – the city from which the Ryanair flight departed on its way to Vilnius.


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