MOSCOW (REUTERS) – Authorities in Belarus scrambled a fighter jet and flagged what turned out to be a false bomb alert to force a Ryanair plane to land on Sunday (May 23) and then detained a journalist onboard, Roman Protasevich, drawing criticism from across Europe.
Here are some facts about Protasevich, 26.
Protasevich last year worked as an editor at the Poland-based Nexta Live channel which is based on the Telegram messenger app and has over 1 million subscribers.
The channel, which is openly hostile to Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, played an important role in broadcasting huge opposition protests against Lukashenko in 2020.
Nexta also helped coordinate those same protests, which were sparked by anger over what the opposition said was a rigged presidential election, something Lukashenko denied.
The channel’s footage, which showed how harshly police cracked down on demonstrators, was used widely by international media at a time when the Belarusian authorities were reluctant to allow foreign media in.
Protasevich in November published on Twitter a copy of an official Belarusian list of terrorists on which his name figured.
The listing said he was accused of organising mass riots while working at Nexta. He also stands accused of disrupting social order and of inciting social hatred. He regards the allegations, which could see him jailed for years, as unjustified political repression.
Protasevich fled Belarus for Poland in 2019 due to pressure from the authorities, according to Media Solidarity, a group that supports Belarusian journalists.
He moved his parents to Poland too after they were put under surveillance, he wrote on Twitter. He later relocated to Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, where opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya is also based.
Protasevich is currently editor-in-chief of a Belarusian political outlet hosted on the Telegram messaging app called “Belarus of the Brain” which has around a quarter of a million subscribers.
He was flying back to Vilnius from Greece where he had spent time taking photographs of a visit there by Tsikhanouskaya. He had posted the pictures to social media before flying back.
One passenger on the Ryanair flight that was forced to land told Lithuania’s Delfi news outlet that Protasevich had his head in his hands and was shaking when he realised that his flight had been diverted to Minsk.
He reportedly said: ‘I’ll get the death penalty here’ as security forces led him away.