The European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF) condemns in the strongest possible terms the arrest of journalist Raman Pratasevich and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega in Belarus, after their flight from Athens to Vilnius was forced to land in Minsk, following a supposed security threat.
“The highjacking of the Ryanair plane to detain the blogger Raman Pratasevich is an act of state terror and a severe violation of international law,” said Rebecca Harms, member of ECPMF’s Executive Board. “The EU and the Member States have to bring this to justice. The EU should also focus on freedom for Raman. It is horrible if we cannot protect those who need and get political asylum in the EU against the persecution by Lukashenka and Putin. All journalists in exile who had to flee from Belarus and Russia are in fear now.”
This brazen attack on press freedom is the latest in an unprecedented crackdown on anti-government protesters, civil society and independent media that started after the rigged August 2020 elections. In October 2020, as part of this wave of repression, the Central District Court in Minsk ruled to include Telegram channel NEXTA, an independent news outlet of which Pratasevich was an editor, in the list of “extremist” materials under the Code of Administrative Offences.
Pratasevich had fled Belarus in 2019 and has refugee status in the EU. In Belarus, he faces up to 15 years imprisonment for allegedly inciting social hatred, organising mass riots and organising group activities that violate public order. He features on a list of persons wanted for involvement in terrorist activities.
We call on the authorities of Belarus to immediately and unconditionally release Pratasevich and Sapega, as well as the other arrested journalists, media workers and political prisoners.
Meanwhile, existing measures by the European Union and its member states have evidently failed to stop the rise in authoritarianism in Belarus. At its Special Meeting this week, the European Council must now increase the pressure on President Lukashenka and his collaborators, including tougher economic sanctions and expanded practical and financial support for independent journalists, media workers, and outlets in Belarus. A failure by the EU and its member states to act forcefully after yesterday’s outrageous actions would be wholly unacceptable and likely serve to embolden the Lukashenka regime further.