Six months after Raman Pratasevich’s arrest, “extremism” charge increasingly used against Belarusian media
Six months after Raman Pratasevich, the editor of an allegedly “extremist” Belarusian exile news outlet, was arrested when his Ryanair flight was diverted to Minsk, he is still awaiting trial in an unknown location. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) reiterates its call for his immediate release and condemns the increasingly frequent use of “extremism” charges against journalists and media outlets.
This opposition journalist and former editor of the Telegram news channel Nexta is under house arrest at a secret location. His mother is allowed to take him food and his mail, but she has signed a confidentiality pledge.
The most recent official comment on Pratasevich's case was on 12 September when, speaking on state-owned STV, the head of the Minsk Investigative Committee said the criminal investigation into the case would be completed in October. He added that the case – which he said also concerned Nexta founder Stepan Putilo, 1863x.com news website founder Eduard Palchys and “anarchist movements” – already consisted of “more than 600 volumes of documents”. There has been no further official word since then.
Arrested on 23 May when Alexander Lukashenko forced his Athens-to-Vilnius Ryanair flight to land in Minsk as it was passing over Belarus, Pratasevich appeared with his face swollen in a video broadcast by Belarusian TV the next day, admitting to his involvement in organising “mass rioting.”
Pratasevich, who had to wait four more days to see his lawyer, delivered additional forced confessions in several more public appearances, including one in an ONT television interview in which he professed “unconditional respect” for Lukashenko, who – he said – had “balls of steel.” He remained in prison for just over a month before being transferred to house arrest.
“The physical and psychological pressure to which Raman Pratasevich has been subjected for the past six month constitutes inhuman treatment and even torture,” said Jeanne Cavelier, the head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk. “We call for his immediate release and the release of the 30 other journalists and media workers arbitrarily imprisoned in Belarus.”
RSF has referred Pratasevich’s case to the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention with the aim of getting his detention formally recognised as arbitrary under international law. And, shortly after his arrest in May, RSF filed a complaint in Lithuania accusing Lukashenko of “hijacking an aircraft with terrorist intent.” This complaint is currently the subject of an investigation by the Vilnius prosecutor-general’s office.
Cavelier added: “In addition to this case, which is emblematic of the excesses of a regime that tries to terrorise journalists, we condemn the increasingly frequent use of the charge of ‘extremism,’ one that is so broad it can even be used to convict an ordinary reader.”
Nexta, which had nearly 2 million subscribers, was declared “extremist” on 20 October 2020. This label is now increasingly used by the authorities to persecute independent media outlets. The most popular news site TUT-BY (now called Zerkalo) and the sports news outlet Tribuna.com were added to the list of “extremist” media in August.
The additions have accelerated in the past three months and now include the news agency Belapan, the exile media Belsat and Euroradio, regional media such as Hrodna.life, Barysuskiya Naviny and Ex-Press.by, and the Telegram channels of the lifestyle magazine Kyky and of Beloruskiy Partizan, a media outlet co-founded by Pavel Sheremet, a Belarusian journalist murdered in Ukraine.
Journalists working for online publications that have been labelled “extremist” risk the possibility of criminal proceedings, as do those who subscribe to them or their social media, and readers who repost their articles. They can be charged with “disseminating extremist content” or even with “membership of an extremist group” and, under a government decision on 12 October, can be sentenced to up to seven years in prison.
This law is being used arbitrarily against those regarded as the regime’s “enemies” and is being applied retroactively. Ihar Baranuski, a historian who edits the newspaper Tsarkva, is currently being prosecuted for posting 12 links to Belsat articles, including some published before Belsat was declared “extremist.”
The Krychaw-based journalist Siarhei Niarouny was fined on 1 November for having “liked” TUT.BY articles on Facebook more than a year ago. On her return from a holiday in Egypt, Belsat journalist Iryna Slaunikava had to serve a 15-day prison sentence at the start of November on a similar charge. BelaPAN editor Iryna Leuchyna and former campaign manager Dzmitry Navajylau were arrested on 18 August and are now facing possible seven-year sentences for “creating an extremist group.” The list of targeted journalists and media outlets keeps on getting longer.
Belarus is ranked 158th out of 180 countries in RSF's 2021 World Press Freedom Index.