On May 23, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko showed the world the lengths to which he will go to silence a free press. On Lukashenko’s orders, journalist Raman Pratasevich was arrested and detained while flying from Greece to Lithuania over Belarusian airspace. The commercial airliner carrying Raman was forced to make an emergency landing in Minsk following an alleged bomb threat. The bomb threat was not real, but the threat to Raman was. Raman’s plane was boarded by security, and he was effectively plucked from the sky.
Last week in southeastern Belarus, a handful political prisoners awaited sentencing as their trials continued behind closed doors. Among them is Ihar Losik, a social media consultant for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and one of the most popular bloggers in the country. He has already served more than a year in pre-trial detention, has endured two hunger strikes and suffers deep physical and mental distress. If convicted, he could face eight years in prison.
Ihar and Raman were arrested not because they committed any crime, but because Lukashenko decided that truth is a threat to his power.
It is because of repressive regimes like Lukashenko’s that RFE/RL teamed up with the Czech Republic’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs to create the Václav Havel Journalism Fellowship. The program is named for former Czech President Václav Havel, and it was inspired by his belief in the transformational role of journalism in challenging tyranny and oppression.
Ihar and Raman believe that, too. It is that shared belief that won them coveted positions in the fellowship program, Ihar in 2015 and Raman in 2017. That shared belief motivates them as independent journalists to find innovative and unique ways to bypass government censors to get the truth out to Belarusians. The shared belief, that shining torch of truth, frightens Lukashenko to his core.
Every day, the U.S. Agency for Global Media and its networks inform, engage and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy. We do this by providing uncensored and unbiased news to 354 million adults in a typical week, in some of the most media-repressed countries. In addition, we do this by supporting principled and professional journalists as they illuminate underreported and unreported stories.
Through programs like the Havel Fellowship, and myriad workshops around the world, we provide reporters, editors, broadcasters and media managers training on topics such as investigative journalism, ethics, technology, combating disinformation and best practices for mobile journalism. We host collaborative meetings with affiliate partners affected by especially challenging circumstances and we help keep independent journalists and their sources safe by supporting the development of encryption tools and other internet censorship circumvention technology.
But in a world where journalists can be plucked out of the air, all the training and technology isn’t enough. Journalists are risking everything to separate truth from lies. These brave individuals deserve better than a dirty jail cell in Minsk, or Hanoi for that matter. They should not have to fear for their families’ safety, wonder when their homes or offices will be raided, or hold their breath when they turn the key in the ignition. They should not be left to wonder if theirs will be the next plane to be forced down.
The international community must rally to protect and defend journalists who put their lives on the line to report mounting abuses of authoritarianism. And journalist who have been detained must be released immediately.We can’t let people like Lukashenko hijack freedom of the press. As anti-democratic threats grow, USAGM will continue to provide audiences with accurate and reliable information and support the next generation of independent journalists serving on the frontlines. Democracy and a free press depend on it.
Kelu Chao is acting CEO of the U.S Agency for Global Media, the independent federal agency that oversees Radio Free Asia, in addition to Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, the Middle East Broadcasting Networks, and the Open Technology Fund.