June 15, 2021

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Who is Roman Protasevich, the blogger at the centre of the Belarus plane hijack?

3 min read

For 170 passengers, the compelled diversion of Ryanair flight FR4978 to Minsk en route from Athens to Vilnius was a key inconvenience. For just one passenger, it was instead far more major.

“A demise sentence is waiting for me below,” Roman Protasevich is described to have informed fellow travellers when they questioned him why he was panicking and shaking as the Boeing 737 descended into Belarus’s main airport.

It is unclear whether the country’s erratic president Alexander Lukashenko will attempt to invoke the greatest sentence against the 26-year aged journalist. But Mr Protasevich has a lot of reasons to be concerned.

As a previous editor and co-founder of Nexta (“someone”), the pre-eminent opposition platform for the duration of past year’s protests, he on a regular basis invoked the autocrat’s ire at a instant when he was at his weakest. Now emboldened by Russian assistance, Mr Lukashenko is trying to find revenge.

A spokesman stated the disputed president personally supervised the astonishing operation, dispatching MiG-29 fighter jets and apparently supplying the get to move on a bogus bomb inform to the Ryanair crew.

Last yr, when the Belarusian opposition staged an improbable marketing campaign to unseat the 26-year dictator pursuing August’s elections that Lukashenko in all probability missing by a landslide, Mr Protasevich’s Nexta was the go-to platform for information and facts. It printed incriminating video clips of point out violence, advertised protest helplines and leaked individual aspects of riot police officers identified in Mr Lukashenko’s brutal crackdown.

When it came to rallies, just one submit on Nexta was enough to ship protesters 1 way. And a different – to switch them again. So excellent was Nexta’s impact on the streets that critics even recommended Mr Protasevich and co-founder Stepan Putilo had been separated from fact, working protests from their small offices in Poland like a Black Mirror-type laptop or computer activity.

In a earlier unpublished interview he gave me in August, Mr Protasevich mentioned Nexta had “no option” but to stage up and open its methods to the opposition motion. At the time of protests, the publication had presently massed a large viewers as a modern-day, application-based mostly media.

When Mr Lukashenko started off blocking huge sections of the classic internet, Nexta, which used the encrypted application Telegram, came into its own. Within days, it built up a enormous readership and briefly turned the most preferred media in the publish-Soviet house. By the conclude of September, it had registered additional than a billion hits.

Revolutionary new technological know-how and horizontal protest buildings – devoid of tiers of hierarchy – the contrast between Nexta and clumsy state propaganda could not have been sharper.

A Belarusian pet dog handler checks luggage from the plane that was forced to land in Minsk

(ONLINER.BY/AFP by using Getty Visuals)

“We realised it was our time,” the journalist mentioned. “We saw that all those who experienced the prospective to be a protest leader were possibly in jail or underneath surveillance. It was our time to move up.”

Mr Protasevich always rejected promises that Nexta directly coordinated the protests. What they did was curate readers’ information and leaks, he said: “We just take suggestions that folks give us, operate them up, cross-look at and current them to the people today.”

At the top of the demonstrations, the Nexta staff was getting 10,000 messages an hour, a lot of from sources inside the regime. That gave its editors one of a kind insights into the fears, aspirations and quantities of impartial Belarusians, he reported.

Back then, Mr Protasevich predicted the powers of the internet intended that Mr Lukashenko’s time was managing out rapidly.

“The net is an untameable instrument that you can use to consolidate society and organise,” he mentioned. “I’ve no question Lukashenko will fall – and he will slide within just weeks.”

8 months on, the moustachioed chief is even now standing, nevertheless, and – to Mr Protasevich’s excellent misfortune – mainly in management of what lies ahead.

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