WASHINGTON, June 3, 2021 /PRNewswire/ -- Leaders of the National Press Club and the NPC Journalism Institute said on Thursday that Aleksandr Lukashenko, the ruler of Belarus, must cease his long-running crackdown on free expression.
Lukashenko has repressed an opposition movement and media professionals in Belarus since contested elections there last year, and he has all but extinguished an independent and free press, according to human rights groups.
On May 23, Lukashenko ordered a fighter jet to force a civilian jetliner that had been flying from Greece to Lithuania to instead land in Belarus so that authorities there could arrest Raman Pratrasevich, a dissident journalist. The police also detained Pratrasevich's girlfriend, Sofia Sapega.
Meanwhile, in just the last five days, at least a half dozen other journalists have been sentenced on specious charges or detained in Belarus, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
National Press Club President Lisa Nicole Matthews and NPC Journalism Institute President Angela Greiling Keane issued the following statement:
"It is past time for Aleksandr Lukashenko to cease his repression of free expression in Belarus. The pattern of judicial harassment and intimidation of reporters, as well as violence against them, is clear and unacceptable."
Pratrasevich fled Belarus in 2019, fearing arrest, and has lived in Lithuania since then. He helped run two channels on the Telegram messaging app, the primary source of information in Belarus, including about protest activities.
Pratrasevich is both an activist and a journalist, a blending of categories that does not fit the traditional American media ideal but that many say is inescapable under a dictatorship such as Lukashenko's.
"The attempt to silence Pratrasevich is an effort to extinguish the free flow of information and so is antithetical to what journalists worldwide hold dear," Matthews and Greiling Keane said.
Pratrasevich has been charged with inciting public disorder, which carries a potential jail term of 12 years, according to the New York Times. His name is also said to be on a government list of terrorists. If he is charged and convicted of that offense, it would carry the death penalty, the Times reported.
The day after his detention, a video emerged on Telegram of Pratrasevich acknowledging his offense and saying he was being well-treated. In the video, which his supporters and family said appeared to have been coerced, he has what look like bruises on his head.
Founded in 1908, the National Press Club is the world's leading professional organization for journalists. The Club has 3,000 members representing nearly every major news organization and is a leading voice for press freedom in the United States and around the world.
The National Press Club Journalism Institute, the Club's non-profit affiliate, promotes an engaged global citizenry through an independent and free press and equips journalists with skills and standards to inform the public in ways that inspire civic engagement.
Contact: John Donnelly, NPC Press Freedom Team Chairman: [email protected] 202-650-6738.