‘Co-author of the coup’ RT interviews detained Belarusian journalist Roman Protasevich

Belarusian state broadcasters have aired multiple interviews with opposition journalist Roman Protasevich since he was arrested in Minsk in May. But until earlier this week, he had yet to speak to any foreign media outlets. The Russian state-controlled broadcaster RT published an interview with Protasevich on Wednesday, August 11. In conversation with special correspondent Konstantin Pridybailo, who reported on last year’s mass protests in Belarus for RT, Protasevich repeated many of the same talking points he covered on Belarusian state television. That said, he did reveal previously unknown plans to launch his own “neutral” media outlet.

Detained opposition journalist Roman Protasevich, who faces charges of organizing mass unrest in Belarus, gave an interview to RT (Russia Today). The state-controlled television network is the first Russian media outlet to speak to Protasevich since he was apprehended in Minsk earlier this year. That said, the interview revealed little: Protasevich largely rehashed his prior post-arrest comments.

Protasevich was detained on May 23, while traveling on a Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius that was diverted to Belarus. His plane was escorted by a Belarusian fighter jet and forcibly grounded in Minsk, ostensibly in response to a bomb threat on board. Upon landing, Protasevich was taken by authorities alongside his girlfriend Sofia Sapega, a Russian national. They now face felony charges in Belarus for alleged involvement in organizing opposition protests. 

Shortly after Protasevich’s arrest, Belarus’ state broadcasters aired several interviews with him. During those appearances, Protasevich denounced the Belarusian opposition and his former colleagues at Nexta, the influential Telegram channel where he was editor-in-chief. His father believes that Protasevich was tortured in custody. There’s evidence that he gave these interviews under duress: after he was nabbed from his plane, he spent nearly a month in the Belarusian KGB’s pre-trial detention center, and bruises and abrasions were visible on his wrists in some of the broadcasts. Protasevich and Sapega are under currently house arrest – Lukashenko insisted they were “practically free” during a press conference on August 9.  

Konstantin Pridybailo, RT’s special correspondent who covered the 2020-2021 protests in Belarus in depth, led the interview with Protasevich. He questioned the opposition journalist about his role, asking questions like:

“Now that we’re face-to-face, I must confess: it hasn’t been that long since I published videos taken from your phone. That was on the night of August 9-10… How do you recall that night?”

The two discussed the mass opposition protests in Belarus, which began after the presidential elections in August 2020. Protasevich agreed that he was an “organizer” of the protests but clarified that he did not consider himself their “coordinator.” He answered in the affirmative when Pridybailo asked if he considered himself a “co-author of the coup” in Belarus.

Among other things, Protasevich revealed for the first time that he plans to launch his own media outlet in Belarus. He explained that it would “respond to the demands of society and respond to the demands of time.” Per his words, the media outlet would “stay in a neutral lane – so that both government officials and the state would become more open to comments and statements.”

As the Belarusian opposition protests began in 2020, many state media journalists resigned, refusing to continue producing propaganda. Shortly thereafter, dozens of “consultants” from RT arrived in the country to assist the state’s broadcasters. Lukashenko personally thanked them for their help.

“You see, in this difficult period you were vital for us. Your technical expertise, your technicians, and your journalists, and correspondents, and others… and your boss [RT editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan]. This was invaluable to us,” Lukashenko told Pridybailo on September 1, 2020 – even as Pridybailo tried to insist that they “were not replacing anyone.” 


But help came How the Russian state media rescued Belarusian broadcasters from political pluralism

In September 2020 RT officially stated that that 32 of its employees were working in Belarus, “advising their Belarusian colleagues on a range of questions” — but that “none of them work on Belarusian TV.”

One of Pridybailo’s questions to Protasevich concerned the role of RT in Belarus — he wondered if Protasevich noticed their new presence. “The arrival of the ‘Russian cavalry’ was most noticeable in the way the rhetoric changed. The coverage became clear and quick. Belarusian state journalism, especially during the August events, was absolutely toothless and defenseless,” responded Protasevich.

The day before Protasevich’s RT interview aired, on August 10, his girlfriend Sofia Sapega appeared in her first post-arrest interview on the state-owned Belarus 1 broadcaster. It’s unclear whether Sapega’s comments were given freely or under duress. Notably, she claimed that there were no KGB officers present on the Ryanair flight when it was grounded. 

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Story by Alexander Baklanov

Translation by Nikita Buchko


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