Roman Protasevich, the 26-year-old media figure who was detained in Minsk after his flight was diverted and forced to land on Sunday, has been a focus of Belarusian authorities’ ire since mass anti-government protests broke out in the country last year.
To avoid the government’s reach, Nexta — pronounced nekh-tah and meaning “someone” in Belarusian — based itself in Poland and publishes on Telegram, a secure direct-messaging smartphone application. Together with its sister outlet, Nexta Live, it attracts close to 2 million subscribers.
Officials in Minsk last year placed Protasevich and Nexta founder Stepan Putilo on a list of individuals “involved in terrorist activity.”
Ihar Tyshkevich, a Belarusian political analyst at the Ukrainian Institute for the Future, described Protasevich and Putilo’s work as “a mixture between journalism and activism.”
“Thousands of people watch every video and piece of text that he posts,” said Gulnoza Said, the Europe and Central Asia Program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Protasevich’s political involvement dates back to his teen years, when he took part in protests against Lukashenko’s presidency. He studied at the Institute of Journalism at the Belarusian State University and later worked as a news photographer for European Radio and other news organizations.
Protasevich was named a 2017-2018 Vaclav Havel Fellow. The program, a joint initiative of the United States-funded news organization Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and the Czech foreign ministry, offers training and mentoring to young journalists from Eastern Europe and Russia.
In 2019, fearing retribution from Belarusian security services — which still carry the acronym KGB — he fled Belarus for Poland, where he was granted political asylum. He later brought his parents out of Belarus for the same reasons.
Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus since 1994, claimed a landslide victory last year in elections condemned by the Belarusian opposition and Western observers as fraudulent. Protasevich, from abroad, found himself at the center of the ensuing protests.
The opposition, led by presidential candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, organized mass peaceful demonstrations. The government responded with a brutal crackdown.
“Nexta was a very important channel in the information conflict between the government and the opposition,” Tyshkevich said. “They helped coordinate the protests.”
In an interview with the BBC last August, Protasevich said Nexta started out as a media organization but evolved into a more activist role when it became clear what was happening in the country.
“To a certain degree, I feel some sort of responsibility for what’s happening,” he said.
Telegram, an encrypted, cloud-based private messenger, has become a popular platform to exchange information within protest movements and in countries with strong governmental censorship. Reporters Without Borders ranks Belarus as the most dangerous country in Europe for media workers.
“Since the disputed presidential election in August 2020, the few independent media outlets have been hounded by police trying to prevent coverage of the huge street protests,” the group has said. “They were already harassed by the authorities, fined and forced into exile, but they had not previously been persecuted on this scale.”
More than 30,000 people were arrested during the protests, human rights observers say. Nexta stepped into the fray.
“We’re journalists, but we also have to do something else,” Protasevich told the New York Times in September. “No one else is left. The opposition leaders are in prison.”
Last week, authorities raided the offices and homes of staff members of Tut.by, one of the country’s most popular news sites. A journalist for another outlet who covered the raid was sentenced on Friday to 15 days in jail, the Belarusian Association of Journalists told the Associated Press.
Lukashenko on Monday signed restrictions that ban live reports on unauthorized mass gatherings and allow the government’s Information Ministry to close media outlets without a court order.
Protasevich later left Nexta to work for another information platform on Telegram, “Belarus of the Brain.” He also traveled back and forth between Poland and Lithuania, where many Belarusian opposition figures now live in exile.
Last week, he attended an economic conference in Greece with Tikhanovskaya. He took photographs during his stay. Before he departed on Sunday, he said he sensed he was under surveillance.
He was flying back to Lithuania on Sunday when Belarusian authorities ordered the Ryanair passenger flight to divert to Minsk. The plane landed, and he was taken into custody.
European leaders are now discussing sanctions against Belarus for what European Union Commission President Ursula von der Leyen called a “hijacking.”
Protasevich’s fate is now unclear. Charges against him for three protest-related offenses could result in a prison sentence of more than 12 years.
For his part, once it became clear that he was returning to Belarus, he anticipated the worst. Fellow passengers said he feared the death penalty, according to media reports.
Sarah Ellison contributed to this report.