The small Eastern European country of Belarus has landed in the middle of an international free speech controversy.
While U.S. citizens can rely on the First Amendment to protect their rights to free speech and a free press, many countries around the world do not honor these rights. Belarus became a global example of press persecution after it diverted a European airplane to capture a passenger – a journalist who spoke out in opposition to the president.
Background on Belarus
The landlocked area that is now Belarus has been ruled by various groups over the centuries, including the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth and the Russian Empire. The region was devastated during World War II, and when the conflict ended it was taken over as part of the communist Soviet Union. It wasn’t until the dissolution of the Soviet Union that Belarus became a sovereign nation, declaring independence on August 25, 1991.
In 1994, Alexander Lukashenko was declared the country’s first president, a position he still holds almost three decades later. Belarus today is a presidential republic, but human rights organizations say it has an authoritarian government and little freedom for its people.
Belarus is classed as a developing country. It has also suffered due to the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, which occurred in the neighboring country of Ukraine. About one-fifth of Belarus’ land is still radioactively contaminated from the nuclear plant’s meltdown.
Free Speech Controversy
The Ryanair craft landed in Minsk, only to find that there was no bomb. Belarusian authorities arrested two of the passengers, Roman Protasevich and his Russian girlfriend, Sofia Sapega. Protasevich is a Belarusian journalist and activist on social media who has criticized President Lukashenko. He has been involved in protests and pro-democracy groups over the last ten years. He moved to Poland in 2019, where he asked for political asylum in 2020.
Protasevich and Sapega were taken away by police, while the plane and most of the passengers continued on to their original destination. A day later, Protasevich appeared in a video saying he would confess to organizing anti-government protests, but he appeared to have some head injuries. He could serve up to 15 years in jail for organizing mass protests.
Human rights groups in Belarus condemned the arrests, writing:
“The accusation of Raman Pratasevich* of inciting social discord against government officials, police officers and other officials is, in our opinion, nothing but persecution for criticizing the current government … In this regard, we consider the persecution of Raman Pratasevich to be politically motivated, as it is related to the peaceful exercise of his opinion, and the detainee is therefore a political prisoner…”
The president defended his actions, stating, “I had to protect people, I was thinking about the country’s security.”
The incident sparked outraged responses in Europe and the United States. Ryanair’s CEO called the incident “state-sponsored hijacking.” Public protests have also been held across Europe and other Western nations like the U.S. and Australia.
The European Union soon told airlines to avoid entering Belarus’ airspace, and several companies are now refusing to operate in the country. The Union also disallowed Belarus’ airlines from flying in the airspace of its 27 member countries.
The United States joined the European Union in condemning Protasevich’s arrest. The State Department also imposed a Do Not Travel warning, telling U.S. citizens not to travel to Belarus.
Meanwhile, Belarus’ ally, Russia, has defended the nation, agreeing to loan it $500 million. Russia hit back against European airlines by refusing to let them land in Moscow, and Russian President Vladimir Putin accused Western nations of similar activity. He noted that a Bolivian airline was forced to land in Austria in 2013, so the plane could be searched for American whistleblower Edward Snowden.
The controversy is a powerful reminder of how precious Americans’ First Amendment rights are. The rights to freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, and freedom to petition the government are fundamental to the U.S. Constitution, even if they are not respected by all. Without these, Americans could find themselves in Protasevich’s shoes.
* Roman Protasevitch is also spelled Raman Pratasevich.