A dictator’s brazen act against a truth-teller

The forced landing of an airliner in Belarus to arrest one journalist shows how much the regime fears its own people – and their acts of “living in the truth.”

Roman Protasevich, a journalist who ran a news blog on Telegram, sits at a court hearing in Minsk, Belarus, in 2017.

Four months ago, Pavel Latushka, a dissident fighting a dictatorship in Belarus, made a prediction: “Those who avoid transparency and responsibility inside the country are likely to act in a way that may threaten international peace and security,” he told an informal meeting of the U.N. Security Council.

On May 23, his warning came true. The repressive government of Alexander Lukashenko used a fighter jet to force an Irish airliner flying over Belarus to land in order to arrest Roman Protasevich, a journalist in exile who operated a news site about Belarus. More than 160 innocent people on the flight were put in danger, and an international norm for civil aviation was violated.

The incident has led to increased foreign sanctions on the regime. It also has highlighted a critical role for many of Belarus’ truth-tellers, especially the few journalists who have not been arrested or forced into exile since protests erupted after a fraudulent election last year. The persecution of media outlets has only put a spotlight on the regime’s growing unpopularity and its fear of revelations about harsh tactics it uses against pro-democracy activists.

An estimated two-thirds of Belarusians relied on tut.by, the main independent news in the country – until it was shut down May 18. At universities, hundreds of students have been detained for speaking out against the regime. Many other people, even those who simply displayed the white-red-white flag of the opposition, have suffered. “Society still insists on its agenda. Belorussian society has shown that it can surprise,” stated political analyst Andrey Yahoraw.

People in Belarus are doing what the late Czech dissident Vaclav Havel advised during the days of the Soviet Union – “live in truth.”

“Every day we show to the whole world that we are still here, that we are fighting,” exiled opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya told the U.S. Congress in March. “We will achieve truth and freedom,” she said, thanks to “all honest journalists, doctors, human rights defenders, volunteers and all brave Belorussians.”

The big street protests of last year have ended, a result of mass arrests and the pandemic. But now the regime’s brazen act of forcing down a commercial airliner to arrest one journalist has revealed its isolation and paranoia. “There is no need for mass protests,” wrote blogger Syarhey Satsuk. “One drop after another will do the job more successfully than a big wave of turbulent water.”

Truth works like that, eroding the lies of an authoritarian regime and forcing it to lash out in strange ways, such as intercepting an airliner. Those on the side of truth can easily predict such events.

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