On Sunday, Belarusian authorities arrested journalist Roman Protasevich and his partner Sofia Sapega after President Alexander Lukashenko ordered the plane they were traveling in to be diverted to Minsk.
Until November last year, Protasevich managed the Telegram channel, Nexta, which played a crucial role in organizing opposition protests after the disputed elections last August that gave Lukashenko the victory. .
With two million followers, the channel became a popular communication tool to outdo the authorities.
According to the Association of Belarusian Journalists, Protasevich’s arrest is part of a larger crackdown on the independent press in Belarus.
Belarusian authorities are said to have blocked 50 independent websites and arrested 477 journalists in 2020.
Al Jazeera spoke with Volha Siakhovich, a Belarus-based legal expert from the Belarusian Association of Journalists about the Protasevich episode and media freedom.
Al Jazeera: Belarusian authorities released a video in which Protasevich states that he is in good health and that the police are treating him according to the law. What did you do with this video?
Siakhovich: We can see that he is alive, but everyone who has been released from detention in Belarus will confirm that the prison conditions are inhumane.
I’ve heard journalists describe being confined to cold cells with no access to hygiene, medical help and toilets. Political prisoners are often kept at low temperatures and prison guards will make sure they do not sleep, because loud music is crushed and bright light shines in the cells.
Other accounts are the overcrowding of up to ten people in a small cell without ventilation.
Al Jazeera: What fears do you have for Protasevich?
Siakhovich: At the moment, he faces three criminal charges for organizing mass riots, actively participating in collective actions that seriously violate public order and inciting social disorder. As a result, he could face up to 15 years in prison.
But the Belarusian courts are not transparent and more charges could be filed at any time. Belarus is also the last European country to have a death penalty. This is not out of the question [the question] for Protasevich yet. Courts can make anything and everything out of nothing.
Al Jazeera: It looks like Lukashenko diverted the passenger plane to stop Protasevich. Why is the 26-year-old considered a threat to Belarus?
Siakhovich: I don’t see Lukashenko’s head, so I can’t tell you why he decided to violate international law to detain a journalist. However, it seems that Protasevich is considered a major enemy of the state for his bloc work during the elections and its aftermath.
During the protests and Internet blackouts forced by Lukashenko, the Nexta channel played a key role in the organization of the protesters, helping them to overcome the authorities.
Protasevich had lived in exile for security reasons after authorities alleged he was involved in the making of a documentary, Lukashenko, Criminal Materials, posted on Nexta’s YouTube channel.
In November 2020, the Minsk office of the Committee of Inquiry of the Republic of Belarus accused Protasevich, in connection with the conduct of the presidential elections of August 9, 2020. The State Security Committee (KGB) also included him in the list of organizations and People involved in terrorist activities.
Al Jazeera: No major elections or protests are planned. Why now?
Siakhovich: It is likely that the Belarusian secret services prepared the operation well in advance. There seems to be little logic to why they did it a day before the European Summit in Brussels. What happened shows that Protasevich’s work was a serious threat to Lukashenko, that is, that he was doing important work.
Al Jazeera: What are your biggest concerns regarding the safety of journalists in Belarus right now?
Siakhovich: Most worrying are the prison conditions I have already mentioned, as they endanger people’s health.
This should be the main cause for concern and international attention.
Foreign media and human rights groups can help raise awareness of the risks of torture and security in Belarusian prisons.
Al Jazeera: What is the role of journalists in Belarus today?
Siakhovich: By the way the Belarusian authorities react to independent journalists, we can assume that journalists have a very important task ahead of them. The time has come to initiate an expected change in Belarus.
The narrative told by the authorities is that journalists generate information against the state as part of some larger Western conspiracy.
When journalists land in the hands of the authorities, the state is free to do whatever it wants. Authorities rarely abide by the law, practicing torture, inventing false claims, and accusing journalists of crimes they never committed.
One thing that is clear is that Belarusian journalists are insecure and are constantly attacked.
As we speak, Tut.by’s independent media offices are guarded by police cars and many of its officials had been charged with various crimes.
Protasevich is just one of 34 Belarusian journalists currently in prison.