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May 24, 2021, 12:58 p.m.

A “state hijacking” in Belarus shows how far its autocratic regime will go to stop dissident journalists

Airspace, like the internet, might be theoretically universal, but that doesn’t stop governments from treating it as a weapon against dissent.

One consequence of the internet’s aversion to international borders has been a recognition that one nation’s laws restricting basic freedoms can have global effects. When China blocks an American social network, it is restricting both what its citizens hear from elsewhere and what the rest of the world hears from Chinese citizens. When Egypt tried to turn off the Internet during the Arab Spring, it limited the flow of information but also helped make the country’s citizens an international cause célèbre. When the Indian government orders Twitter to remove a few tweets critical of its Covid response, it also makes those 280 characters into a global story.

But long before the internet, there was another shared-but-contested space beset by conflicting interests: the air itself. Like the Moon, the oceans, and Antarctica, the airspace above us all is both national and universal, our birthright as humans and a militarized, commercialized arena for the powerful. And it was that old shared space that prompted a significant threat to press freedom this weekend.

On Sunday, the autocratic president of Belarus, Aleksandr Lukashenko, ordered a fighter jet to intercept a Ryanair passenger plane flying in Belarusian airspace and force it to land at the capital, Minsk. The commercial flight, originally a nonstop from Athens to Vilnius, was carrying a journalist and dissident named Roman Protasevich, 26, whose criticism of the Belarusian government was a burr in its saddle. Once grounded, Protasevich was removed from the plane and jailed; he could now face the death penalty under Lukashenko’s dictatorship.

Belarus banned most non-Lukashenko-supporting media outlets last fall amid protests, but Protasevich’s online platforms — he co-founded the NEXTA channel on Telegram that’s become a hub for regime opponents — remained a target. (Here’s a piece on the channel — “the most popular dissident media outlet in Belarus” — from Rest of World last fall.)

The western world has thus far been united in its opposition, with several countries ordering their airlines to avoid Belarus airspace and some blocking Belarusian flights from landing in their countries. Greek’s foreign ministry called it a “state hijacking.”

Airspace issues such as this one are governed by the Chicago Convention on International Civil Aviation, and the agency that oversees such matters believes the forced landing may have violated it.

The convention seems to give countries somewhat greater leeway in their actions in their airspace when there is a threat to “public safety,” including requiring an aircraft “to effect a landing as soon as practicable…within its territory.” That quest for wiggle room may be why Belarusian officials used a ginned-up bomb threat as their excuse to bring down the plane.

But it’s possible the Streisand Effect also applies to the atmosphere, not just the blogosphere: Lukashenko’s attempt to silence a voice has instead driven more attention to it. Belarus is currently prominent on the homepages of The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, El Pais, Le Monde, the BBC, and a host of other outlets that are typically happy to let Belarusian headlines drift quietly into the archives. Sanctions are being imposed or planned.

Time will tell whether Belarus’ dictator finds this, in the end, to have been a bee’s nest worth disturbing. In the meantime, though, a new tactic has just been laid out for autocratic regimes looking to stifle dissent or target journalists. In a shared space like the air — or the internet — freedom is hardly guaranteed to win out, no matter how idealistic its conventions.

Photo of an anti-Lukeshenko protest in Minsk on August 30, 2020 by Natallia Rak used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     May 24, 2021, 12:58 p.m.
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