A gratifying thing about writing an opinion column every Thursday is that people stop me in the supermarket and tell me how much they like my articles. I reply that I appreciate my paper for giving me a voice in the community. I am so grateful that people read the paper. I appreciate living in a country that values free speech so much that it is outlined in the Constitution, as one of the basic principles we follow as a nation.
My blood ran cold when I read about another journalist: 27-year-old Roman Pratasevich, originally of Belarus. He wasn’t born yet when Alexander Lukashenko assumed office as president of Belarus when that country formed out of the breakup of Russia, around 1991. Lukashenko was elected its first president in 1994. He remains in office through subsequent highly questionable elections. Poland-based online news service Nexta says Lukashenko is an illegitimate holdover without support of the people. Nexta recently exposed the self-proclaimed leader’s extravagances and mob ties.
Systematic rape is one of the torture techniques used by Belarus Police to silence journalists covering pro-democracy protests. Radio Free Europe claims Lukeshenko has gone too far. Journalists are targeted by the government's crackdown, which intensified due to large-scale demonstrations. Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, seen by many as the rightful winner of the most recent election, exiled herself in Lithuania after the vote amid threats to herself and her family.
The young journalist Pratasevich is an outspoken critic of Lukashenko. And until silenced by the dictator, the journalist connected with Belarusians. The internet democratizes journalism, creating opportunities for critics to nudge Belarus toward openness and democratic values, but truth-telling comes at great personal sacrifice. More than 33,000 people have been detained, and thousands beaten or tortured.
On Sunday of this week, at the personal direction of President Lukeshenko, a Belarus Air Force MiG-29 fighter jet intercepted Ryanair Flight 4978, an Irish passenger airliner traveling from Greece to Lithuania. Air traffic controllers diverted the flight to Minsk, claiming a bomb threat. There the journalist and his girlfriend, a Lithuanian student, were taken off the plane by Belarusian security agents. Apparently four other passengers believed to be Belarusian intelligence operatives exited the plane as well. Belarus still calls its secret service "KGB."
The world community is reacting. Amid international demands for an investigation of the extraterritorial rendition, the government of Belarus claims it will "investigate itself." And you know what? Those truth-telling kids almost made it. The pilots were almost out of Belarusian air space, and had deviated from the typical flight pattern, which suggests the pilots thought the diversion was what it was: a subterfuge. State-sponsored hijacking violates the Chicago Convention on Civil Aviation of the United Nations, which has 193 signatory nations and standardizes global passports, airline regulations and airline safety. As Pratasevich was being forcibly taken off the plane, he uttered chilling words: "The death penalty awaits me here."
I am so glad we don’t kill journalists in America when they express opinions about a different or better way to do democracy. We’ve had free speech and press ever since 1791, when the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights was incorporated into the Constitution, prohibiting Congress from making any law establishing religion, prohibiting free exercise of religion, abridging free speech or free press, or abridging peaceable assemblies and petitions to redress grievances.
Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Cardozo declared that freedom of speech “is the matrix, the indispensable condition of nearly every other form of freedom.” People can say anything they want to in America. We put up with the wild-eyed weirdos. Our independent judiciary doesn’t permit the government to muzzle or to kill reporters or protesters. Watch as this story continues to evolve.
Kathy Tibbits is a Cherokee citizen, attorney and artist living at Lake Tenkiller.