Meet Roman Protasevich, the journalist with 2 million followers detained by Belarusian authorities

Business Insider US
Screenshot from a video of the journalist Roman Protasevich released by Belarusian authorities on May 24, 2021.
  • Belarusian authorities detained a 26-year-old journalist after grounding his Lithuania-bound flight.
  • Roman Protasevich is a vocal critic of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.
  • Protasevich's activism against his country's tyranny dates back to 2011, when he was 16 years old.
  • For more stories visit Business Insider.

The dramatic arrest of Belarusian dissident Roman Protasevich drew international interest this week, when Belarusian authorities took the 26-year-old journalist into custody after grounding his Lithuania-bound Ryanair flight.

Protasevich and his girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, were aboard flight FR4978 from Athens to Lithuania before pilots were alerted of a bogus security threat and ordered to land in Minsk. Belarusian state media reported it was Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko who gave an "unequivocal order" to ground the passenger jet in Minsk.

Belarusian KGB agents took Protasevich, a vocal critic of Lukashenko, into custody after the flight landed in Minsk, despite data on Flightradar24 showing the plane made a sharp U-turn to land in Belarus, as it was closer to its destination in Lithuania than Minsk, Insider's Cheryl Teh reported.

Belarusians living in Poland and Poles supporting them hold up a placard reading 'Freedom to Roman Protasevich' during a demonstration in front of the European Commission office in Warsaw on May 24, 2021.

Just before Belarusian authorities arrested Protasevich, one passenger aboard the plane - solely identified as Mantas - told Reuters they saw him give a laptop and phone to a female passenger who was traveling with him. It was not immediately clear if that female passenger was Sapega, who was also detained after the flight was grounded in Minsk and could face charges in Belarus.

Protasevich grew up in Minsk, and has been an opponent of Lukashenko's regime for a decade, first demonstrating his opposition to the Belarusian government in a 2011 video posted to YouTube. Protasevich, then 16 years old, was among those detained by state authorities after sitting on a bench watching a "clapping protest" - in which a flash mob clapped in protest of the government but never audibly expressing their grievances, according to a report by The New York Times.

"For the first time I saw all the dirt that is happening in our country," he said in the video, citing The Times report. "Just as an example: Five huge OMON riot police officers beat women. A mother with her child was thrown into a police van. It was disgusting. After that everything changed fundamentally."

Protasevich's mother told The Times that, soon after, her son's school expelled him. He was homeschooled for six months because no other schools would take him.

"Imagine being a 16-year-old and being expelled from school," Protasevich's mother told The Times, citing the 2011 incident - which she described as an "injustice" and an "insult" - as the reason he was so entrenched in opposition activism. "That is how he began his activism as a 16-year-old."

Protasevich went on to study journalism at Belarusian State University but ran into legal trouble and was unable to finish his degree, The Times reported.

He was frequently detained and jailed as he worked freelance for opposition-focused news outlets, before he decided to move to Poland and work on leaking videos and documents related to the Lukashenko regime. He cofounded and serves as the editor-in-chief of Nexta, a news outlet based in Poland reporting on opposition efforts against Lukashenko, for the next 10 months.

In 2019, he moved back to Minsk until authorities arrested another opposition journalist Vladimir Chudentsov, prompting Protasevich to once again flee to Poland with his parents, who were also under government scrutiny. Amid the controversial 2020 presidential election in Belarus, Protasevich took a step further in his "activist journalism" and began to cross into the realm of political activism - not only reporting on protests against Lukashenko's regime but also organizing them.

Stispan Putsila, a fellow dissident who worked alongside Protasevich at Nexta, told The Times Protasevich became "more interested in organizing street action" following the 2020 presidential election in Belarus, in which allegations of a rigged election spurred nationwide protests after Lukashenko won a sixth term by a landslide.

The European Union also imposed sanctions on several Belarusian officials, including Lukashenko, in the wake of the contested presidential elections in August.

"I would not say he was more radical, but he definitely became more resolute," Putsila said of Protasevich's emerging activism in light of the elections.

In an interview with The Times last year, Protasevich said "we're journalists, but we also have to do something else."

"No one else is left," he continued. "The opposition leaders are in prison."

In a government video reposted by the Minsk reporter Hanna Liubakova following his arrest earlier this week, Protasevich confirmed he was detained by authorities at Minsk National Airport by the Ministry of Internal Affairs. He said he's had "no health concerns" and was treated "correctly" and "lawfully" when taken into custody.

Protasevich said he was cooperating with authorities and continued to "provide evidence related to the mass rallies in Minsk," according to a translation by Insider.

The Times reported his friends said he made the aforementioned confession under duress as he was in custody at the Minsk National Airport. On the contrary, Putsila told The Times Protasevich's character "has always been very resolute" and that he "refused to live in fear."

"The Lukashenko regime considers Roman one of its main enemies," Putsila told The Times. "Maybe it is right."

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