The brazen hijacking of a Ryanair flight by the regime of the Belarusian president, Alexander Lukashenko, on Sunday 23 May in order to arrest dissident journalist Roman Protasevich, 26, and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega sparked outrage around the world. Protasevich was wanted by Lukashenko for his role in creating the Nexta channel on the encrypted messaging app Telegram. A few days after his arrest, he appeared in a confession video bearing signs of apparent torture. He faces years in jail, accused of terrorism, among others.
Warsaw-based Nexta (meaning “someone” in Belarusian) is the most influential opposition media outlet in Belarus and last autumn, under Protasevich as editor-in-chief, helped coordinate huge anti-government protests in response to a presidential election widely considered rigged. Its main channel boasts some 1.2 million subscribers, equivalent to more than a tenth of the country’s population of 9.5 million (although some are from other Russophone countries).
Nexta’s fusion of anti-regime activism and independent journalism in a country where the press is strongly censored resonated with Belarusians after last year’s election, and the channel grew virtually overnight into eastern Europe’s largest. As it is based in Poland, it can publish leaked documents freely; opposition media based inside Belarus would be shut down for doing the same. It also can’t be censored as its host, Telegram, is encrypted.
The channel’s success quickly brought its young team to the attention of the regime, culminating in Lukashenko’s shocking arrest of Protasevich. The New Statesman spoke to Tadeusz Giczan, the current editor-in-chief of Nexta, about the prospects for the channel and how the opposition should respond to Protasevich’s detention.
Giczan, who lives in Warsaw, is a 28-year-old PhD student at University College London. He took a gap year to work on Nexta following last year’s protests. He has been editor-in-chief since January 2021, after Protasevich left to work on another opposition Telegram channel. Together with a full-time staff of six others, Giczan coordinates Nexta’s coverage on a small budget.
Protasevich’s arrest seems intended to signal to Belarusian dissidents that they are not safe anywhere – not even on an EU-registered flight between EU capitals, in this case from Athens in Greece to Vilnius in Lithuania. Giczan, however, says he is not worried about his personal safety, though he acknowledges that he is vulnerable.
“Anything could happen,” he says. “The only protection we have at our office is two policemen. We could be followed from the office to our apartments. It wouldn’t be difficult to do something nasty to us.” He adds, however, that he is protected, to a degree, by the regime’s decision to elevate other opposition figures to the status of arch-enemies, in particular the founders of Nexta, Protasevich and Stepan Putilo.
“There are people who are much higher on the list than me. And anyway, we learned to cope with the dozens of death threats we were receiving daily following the election [last year],” he says.
Although hundreds of Belarusians are currently held as political prisoners by the regime – the figure on 26 May was 421, according to Viasna, a Belarusian human rights NGO – Giczan argues that Protasevich’s case garnered such wide international attention because of the circumstances of his arrest, rather than the merits of his case: “The EU is more outraged by the fact that it was an EU plane with EU passengers on board, than by the hundreds of people who have been kidnapped in Belarus over the last year. The only strong reaction from the West came when a European plane was hijacked.”
The EU and UK swiftly imposed sanctions on Belarus following the hijacking, including banning Belavia, the national carrier, from European airports. The US is reported to be mulling similar measures.
Nexta had to slim down the number of staff working on its Telegram channel because of financial difficulties, according to Giczan. Applications for “dozens” of grants were unsuccessful, leaving the channel reliant on the ads it can sell to companies in sectors such as cryptocurrencies.
With Western attention once again focused on ways to support the democratic opposition in Belarus, Giczan says that a relatively small amount of funding for Telegram channels such as Nexta could be an effective way to boost Lukashenko’s political rivals. “We’re not a very expensive organisation to run,” he says.
Giczan would also like more political support for the opposition in exile. Some of his team, who have been denied political asylum, are considered illegal immigrants in Poland, he says. Protasevich moved to Lithuania, which has a more generous asylum policy for Belarusian dissidents, because he was not granted refugee status by the Polish government. “We are promised a lot [from the West] on the days when Belarus is on the front pages. But just a week later, they go back to not caring about Belarus again,” he says.
There are few prospects for Protasevich’s release, he says: “There is no chance he is going to be released because the EU and the West have no real leverage over Belarus’s domestic policy.” More severe European sanctions might push Lukashenko to release some political prisoners in exchange for relief, Giczan believes, but this is a remote prospect. Furthermore, retaliation from the West would likely have been priced into Lukashenko’s decision to hijack the jet.
But Giczan is adamant that the heightened repression will not dissuade Nexta from continuing to take on Lukashenko, nor will the fact that his family remain in Belarus. “Roman’s arrest will not change much in terms of how we operate – but we will certainly be more vigilant,” he concludes.
[See also: The bully of Belarus]