We must always defend freedom of expression and freedom of the press.
Fortunately, we live in a democratic country where those rights exist. A country where we are free to share our thoughts and opinions as citizens and as media professionals without any repercussion or punishment – even if those voiced are against or disagree with our Prime Minister and his government’s policies.
Sadly, it is not the same for all countries and journalists around the world today.
The recent arrest of 26-year old Belarusian journalist and activist, Roman Protasevich, is a prime example of how some regimes have been cracking down and attempting to silence outspoken journalists and political activists in recent years. Particularly, those who speak out against their country’s leader and government.
In a report last week, Gulnoza Said, the Europe and Central Asia program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, said that Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko, is Europe’s last dictator and has long been an enemy of independent media. Last year, he stepped up censorship after claiming victory in a contested presidential election in August.
Protasevich has been an outspoken critic of Lukashenko for years and is one of many who believe last year’s presidential election was rigged. Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus for more than a quarter century, has denied the allegations.
In a move to try and stop such opposition, Protasevich was detained and arrested in Minsk on May 23, after the Belarusian government dispatched a fighter jet to intercept a Ryanair commercial flight he was on. The government said there was an alleged bomb threat against the plane, that many say was fake. Protasevich has since been charged with organizing riots and civil disturbances, an offence that carries a potential sentence of up to 15 years in prison.
Rightly so, the move by the Belarusian government sparked international outrage and several countries have already imposed sanctions on Belarus, calling the plane interception an act of hijacking. They have also demanded Protasevich’s immediate release and some, including the European Union, have banned flights from Belarus.
Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has also spoken out, calling the actions outrageous, illegal and unacceptable, and said it was an attack on democracy and freedom of the press. Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Marc Garneau and Minister of Transport, Omar Alghabra also issued a joint statement last week denouncing Protasevich’s arrest, and called it a “blatant attack on media freedom with serious implications on the rights of freedom of expression.”
We live in a world today where ordinary people have the ability to share news with the touch of a button, as advancements in technology have allowed us to record and post news online, even as it happens. Many times, those news stories consist of events, protests and rallies that are either against or in support of leaders, governments, organizations and causes. They are something we see in the news almost every day and are now considered so commonplace that perhaps many people have taken them and the right to speak up, for granted.
Protasevich was doing just that. He was writing news stories and informing the people of Belarus what was happening in their country. He also shared his thoughts about what was taking place and encouraged others to get involved, often helping mobilize protests so that people could voice their concerns, stand up for their country and fight for change.
To Lukashenko and others like him, Protasevich was an enemy, but to the people of Belarus and many around the world, he is a courageous young man and nothing short of a hero.