Russian media boss drops the pretence and defends Belarus crackdown
The "editor-in-chief" of the Russian state-funded media outlets Rossiya Segodnya, RT and Sputnik has publicly congratulated Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko on the hijacking of an airliner to Minsk and the arrest of journalist Raman Pratasevich last month. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) deplores her comments, which amount to open support for the crackdown by the Belarusian government on independent media.
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The Ryanair flight carrying more than a hundred passengers from Athens to Vilnius was diverted to the Belarusian capital on 23 May after it was falsely reported there was a bomb on board, and led to the arrest of Pratasevich who was on the plane. Writing on Twitter, Margarita Simonyan expressed her admiration for the Belarusian government and congratulated Lukashenko: “I never thought that I would envy Belarus for anything. But now I’m jealous in a way. Batka (Lukashenko) played it beautifully.”
“Such comments amount to welcoming the crackdown on Belarusian journalists, which is shocking coming from someone who often invokes freedom of the press when it comes to defending the interests of the media organisations that she runs,” RSF Secretary General Christophe Deloire said.“The Munich Charter of ethics states in article 2 that journalists should ‘defend freedom of information, comment and criticism’ and Margarita Simonyan is doing the opposite, which says a lot about her idea of freedom. In arresting Raman Pratasevich, the Belarusian authorities have breached the international right to press freedom, which they ferociously trample underfoot every day. Moreover, the video showing the journalist speaking with a swollen face suggests that he had most probably been beaten, perhaps even tortured.”
Simonyan has led RT since 2005, as well as the state-funded media group Rossiya Segodnya, which controls the Sputnik network amongst others. She is a pillar of Russian propaganda and makes no bones about attacking independent journalists. In a televised debate in February, she said that independent news organisations in Russia were in the pay of U.S. intelligence and “will be tried for spying and treason”.
The news organisation she runs openly supported the Belarusian state broadcaster BT during a strike by its staff in August 2020. In response to an appeal by Lukashenko, “Russian specialists” from RT travelled to Minsk to fill the gaps caused by the strike and the resignation of hundreds of BT employees in protest against fraudulent presidential election results.
“You were important to us in this difficult period,” the head of the station Belarus 1 said later in thanking RT correspondent Konstantin Pridybailo.
These days, the flagship news broadcasts on Belarus 1 have adopted a style and rhetoric similar to the “Vremia” and “Vesti” newscasts on Russian state television and use the same studio experts, as noted by the Russian independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta.
Belarus fell five places to 158th out of 180 countries in the 2021 World Press Freedom Index compiled by RSF.