In November, Roman Protasevich – a 26-year-old Belarusian blogger and journalist, wrote on his Twitter feed that he had been “declared terrorist” in Belarus. He went on to say, “A couple of hours later, the Belarusian ‘parliament’ adopts a law on deprivation of citizenship for extremism and/or terrorism. An incredible coincidence!” Six months later, on May 23, Belarusian authorities intercepted a commercial Ryanair flight, traveling from Greece to Lithuania, while it was in Belarus air space with 126 passengers on board, instructing it to land and alleging a “security threat” was on board. The Belarusian government sent a MiG-29 fighter jet to escort the plane back to Minsk.
But, there was no bomb on board. Instead, the only so-called “security threat” was Protasevich, who was arrested with his girlfriend when the plane landed. Protasevich remains in detention, where it is alleged that he has been subjected to torture and inhuman treatment. In addition to being charged with terrorism, he is also accused of inciting mass riots. His most recent televised appearance in custody involved a tearful statement from him affirming involvement in illegal, anti-government rallies. His family said the statement was adduced under duress or coercion.
What is the real “crime” that led to such a phenomenal and unprecedented heavy-handed response by the Belarusian authorities? The peaceful exercise of fundamental freedoms: expression, opinion, assembly and media, in prominent opposition to the autocratic regime of Alexander Lukashenko, who’s served as president of Belarus since 1994. Protasevich was the co-founder and editor of several Telegram-based blogs with large numbers of followers – Nexta and Nexta Live – which played a key part in the popular uprising following Lukashenko’s disputed election last year. Protasevich had fled Belarus to seek refuge, first in Poland, and then, in Lithuania.
The forced landing of the plane and subsequent arrest of Protasevich are, however, nothing more than steps – albeit unprecedented and shocking – in an increasingly reported and analyzed trend: the incremental use by States, across the globe, of legislation to counter the threat of terrorism, in various ways, against journalistic activity. These challenges include the prosecution, or threat of prosecution, of journalists under imprecise and vaguely worded definitions of acts of terrorism, extremism or violent extremism, or justified by the preservation of national security or public order against journalists who criticize government policy, investigate government action, or seek to bring new information to the public, who can, in many cases, fall foul of the definition of terrorism.
It also includes the prosecution, or threat of prosecution, of journalists under various offenses that tightly circumscribe freedom of expression and opinion, including overly broad incitement offenses, apologies, encouragement, propaganda, or glorification of terrorism, as well as membership. There is also the adoption of legislation that more plainly limits any receiving, investigating, reporting, and/or publishing on “terrorist” incidents. Governments also use smear campaigns, including by heads of State, loosely characterizing journalists as “terrorists,” as well as judicial harassment (arrests, detentions, and convictions), physical harassment (torture, arbitrary detention, and incommunicado and secret detention, surveillance, assault, kidnapping and assassinations); and a range of measures to exclude journalists from international fora, or preventing their travel.
All of these methods are demonstrably used to quash journalistic activity, increasingly perceived as a threat to the State, either directly through the silencing of the targeted individual or through the indirect silencing of others through a ripple chilling effect.
Belarus has a very problematic definition of extremist activity, which includes “disseminating extremist materials” as well as “degrading of national honour and dignity.” According to the United Nations Human Rights Committee, measures that invoke national security laws to suppress or withhold from the public information of legitimate public interest that does not harm national security or to prosecute journalists, (…) or others, for having disseminated such information, are incompatible with article 19(3) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which enshrines freedom of expression. According to the U.N. special rapporteur on human rights and counter-terrorism, extremist crimes are, per se, incompatible with the exercise of certain freedoms.
In the instance of Protasevich, taking the extra mile in suppression made the signal loud and clear: Industrial scale means can and will be used against any civil society member branded as a “terrorist,” at home or abroad. Verbal and written criticism has a price, and it applies even to those who have fled. No one is safe. Journalists are particularly at risk, with the execution of Jamal Khashoggi acting as a harbinger, although he wasn’t accused of “terrorism” by the Saudi government.
As this case makes amply clear, the consistent pattern of countering terrorism against those who advocate for the rights of others, for the right to free and uncensured information: the use of counter-terrorism measures in this way is not accidental, or an unfortunate by-product of security practice. In some cases, it is precisely the intended use. The wholesale attack on fundamental freedoms and those who exercise them is the result of two separate but overlapping phenomena.
When countering terrorism becomes an international priority, boasted by an ever-growing counter-terrorism/security infrastructure at the international level, but with States getting to define terrorism on their own terms domestically, terrorism is easily manipulated as a catchall phrase that includes acts that are protected by international law. But, also, when civil society is kept at the periphery of meaningful engagement and consultation across the globe, on the margins of counterterrorism policy and practice, but also on a number of other security issues, exceptionalism becomes the new normal, and there is no short-term solution to such a profound structural problem.
In this case, the slight twist that some have suggested — including the first U.N. Special rapporteur on human rights while countering terrorism, Martin Scheinin — is that the Belarusian hijacking of a civilian plane is, in itself, an act of terrorism, noting that the severity of the act would justify using the label of terrorism under the 1963 Convention on Offenses and Certain Other Acts Committed On Board Aircraft. In a similar vein, Reporters Sans Frontières (Reporters Without Borders) has filed a complaint in Lithuania against Lukashenko for “hijacking an aircraft with criminal intent” as defined in articles 251 and 252-1 of Lithuania’s criminal code. This could, in principle, engage responsibility under U.N. Security Council resolution 1373 (2001).
Some measures to punish Belarus’ actions have been taken. Statements condemning the forced landing of the plane and the detention of Protasevitch, combined with economic sanctions by the United States (and envisaged by the European Union) as well as airspace overflight bans – both for Belarusian planes over EU airspace and for EU carriers over Belarusian airspace. The overreach of terrorism accusations has, however, not been raised by governments.
Yet the consequences of these abusive accusations of terrorism and of the lack of condemnation of this phenomenon are far reaching. They directly impact Protasevitch, who has been silenced through unlawful detention, possible ill-treatment, and fear of prosecution for very serious crimes. They also affect all those countless journalists and members of the opposition in Belarus, who might have been tempted to express views that the authorities do not agree with, and who will now remain quiet. Beyond Belarusian borders, the consequences will be felt by all civil society activists around the world, who now know where unfounded accusations of terrorism can lead them. The chilling effect seems so far to have succeeded brilliantly.