On Sunday, after Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko ordered their plane to be diverted to Minsk, Belarusian authorities detained journalist Roman Protasevich and his partner Sofia Sapega.
Until November last year, Protasevich managed the Telegram channel Nexta, which played a key role in organizing opposition protests. A controversial election held in August last year led to Lukashenko’s victory.
With 2 million followers, the channel has become a popular communication tool that can be used to attract past authority.
According to the Belarusian Journalists’ Association, the detention of Protasevich was part of a larger crackdown on the Belarusian Independent News Agency.
It said the Belarusian authorities blocked 50 independent websites and arrested 477 journalists in 2020.
Al Jazeera discussed the Protasevich incident and media freedom with Volha Siakhovich, a Belarusian legal expert from the Belarusian Association of Journalists.
Al Jazeera: The Belarusian authorities released a video in which Protasevich stated that he is healthy and the police are treating him in accordance with the law. What do you think of this film?
Sijahović: We can see that he is still alive, but everyone detained in Belarus will confirm that prison conditions are inhumane.
I have heard the reporter describe that they are confined in a cold storage room and cannot get sanitation, medical assistance and toilets. Political prisoners are usually kept in cold temperatures, and prison guards will ensure that they will not fall asleep, because loud music is exploded and bright light is shot into the cell.
Other reasons include the overcrowding of up to 10 people in a small cell with no ventilation.
Al Jazeera: What are your concerns about Protasevich?
Sijahović: Currently, he faces three criminal charges for organizing large-scale riots, actively participating in group actions that seriously violate public order, and inciting social chaos. For this, he may face up to 15 years in prison.
However, the Belarusian courts are not transparent, and more charges may be made at any time. Belarus was also the last European country to be sentenced to death.It’s not out of [the question] For Protasevich. The court can fabricate anything.
Al Jazeera: Lukashenko seems to have diverted a passenger plane to arrest Protasevich. Why is this 26-year-old young man regarded as a threat to Belarus?
Sijahović: I can’t see Lukashenko’s head, so I can’t tell you why he decided to arrest a journalist in violation of international law. However, during the election and its aftermath, Protasevich seemed to be considered an important enemy of the state because of his blogging work so much.
During the protests carried out by Lukashenko and the internet outage, the Nexta channel played a key role in organizing protesters and helping them to get past the authorities.
For security reasons, Protasevich has been in exile because the authorities claimed that he was involved in the production of criminal material in the documentary Lukashenko, which was posted on Nexta’s YouTube channel.
In November 2020, the Minsk office of the Investigative Committee of the Republic of Belarus charged Protasevich in response to developments before and after the presidential election on August 9, 2020. The National Security Council (KGB) also included him on the list of organizations, individuals involved in terrorist activities.
Al Jazeera: There are no plans for upcoming elections or large-scale protests. Why now?
Sijahović: This operation is likely to be prepared by the Belarusian Secret Service very early. Why they did this the day before the European summit in Brussels seems to have no logic. What has happened shows that Protasevich’s work poses a serious threat to Lukashenko, which means that he is doing important work.
Al Jazeera: What are your biggest concerns about the safety of journalists in Belarus?
Sijahović: The most worrying thing is the prison conditions I have mentioned, because they put people’s health at risk.
This should be the biggest concern and the focus of international attention.
Foreign media and human rights organizations can help by raising awareness of torture and security risks in Belarusian prisons.
Al Jazeera: What role do journalists in Belarus play today?
Sijahović: Judging from the reaction of the Belarusian authorities to independent journalists, we can assume that journalists have a very important task before them. The time has come for them to begin the long-awaited change in Belarus.
The narrative that the authorities told us is that as part of some larger Western conspiracy, reporters produced information directed at the country.
When reporters fall into the hands of the authorities, the country is free to do whatever it wants. The authorities rarely respect the law, conduct torture, fabricate false claims, and accuse reporters of crimes they have never committed.
One thing that is clear is that Belarusian journalists are not safe and are frequently attacked.
As we said, the office of the independent media Tut.by is monitored by police cars, and many of its staff have been charged with various crimes.
Protasevich is just one of 34 Belarusian journalists currently in prison.