Imagine yourself smoking a cig and sitting around a Hollywood scriptwriters table in the 1960s. It’s the era of “Dr. Strangelove,” “The Manchurian Candidate” and “The Mouse That Roared,” all films that reflected the insane political intrigue of the times through a funhouse mirror. So anything goes. And at this freewheeling brainstorming session, you suggest the following plot:
“So there’s the 26-year-old journalist, and he’s on an Irish plane from Greece to Lithuania. But this Soviet-style dictator who considers the journalist his arch enemy sends up a fighter jet under the premise that a Middle East resistance movement has planted a bomb on the plane. The pilots are really confused. And yeah, there are three KGB agents on board and bomb-sniffing dogs on the ground ready to act out the staged drama.”
At this point, your writer buds would throw you out of the room for having a wildly overactive imagination.
If only. In a media world where the implausible has turned into the horrible, and bully despots feel themselves emboldened to act with impunity, the May 23 Ryanair skyjacking emerges as something worse than the intimidation of Roman Protasevich, a young scribe determined to expose and expunge a ruthless strong man who loves his power more than his people.
Simply put, Belarus dictator Alexander Lukashenko has drawn up the blueprint for other such leaders to do the same. And, I believe, get away with it.
U.S. fuel for the Belarus skyjacking
For this, we have the last U.S. President in large measure to not thank. Donald Trump—who ever excels at playing the victim and the bully—tattooed the label “enemy of the people” on the press again and again and again. This is a page from the playbook of Adolph Hitler, who wrote in Mein Kampf that:
“In the primitive simplicity of their minds, people more readily fall victims to the big lie than the small lie.”
“Stolen” elections and QAnon, anyone?
I’ve hit on the 2021 version of this Hitlerism, this anti-media sloganeering, many times, as patently evil. But realize that as of now–especially now on an international stage–these weren’t just words, people. Nor were they during his populist tenure in office.
When overwhelming evidence emerged that Saudi prince Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the murder of Washington Post communist Jamal Ahmad Khashoggi in October 2018, Trump shrugged it off. You’d think Khashoggi lived in Yemen, not Virginia, when Trump proclaimed, “It sounded to me like maybe these could have been rogue killers. Who knows?”
Well, his own CIA did. But Trump dismissed the assessment as wrong. Lesson learned: It’s OK for a crown price turned evil-clown price to kill a journalist who lives just a newspaper’s toss from the White House.
A weak response to a journalistic travesty
You can probably see this plane coming in for a landing. NATO and the European Union, for all the handwringing and paper-tiger growling, will probably impose some weak sanction like cutting off the import of Washington Red Delicious apples into Minsk. In banning flights over Belarus airspace, politicians merely made a knee-jerk reaction–and severely miscalculated. That only gives the Belarus dictator more leverage to crush his people, not less. They can’t escape, unless they want to go to Russia, where ally/fellow dictator Vladimir Putin will welcome them with a sloppy wet kiss and job applications to become hackers of U.S. computer systems.
Where will the real Belarus media be, meanwhile? The witness of truth to power? If you’re Protasevich, you’re behind bars, being waterboarded and/or subjected to 200-volt electric prods up the ass as an example to all. And what’s worse, he can’t bite into a bodacious Red Delicious apple because of the stiff EU crackdown. Now that hurts.
It disturbs me how little, in the end, is being done to win Protasevich’s freedom. Even insofar as the current occupant of the White House. President Biden has an opportunity to signal a 180-degree reversal from the orientation of his predecessor. But inaction, disguised as bland rhetoric that leverages the word “shameful,” amounts to tacit approval of a heinous act, even if that’s not the intention. Shame.
Journalists, in this regard, must consider what is and isn’t working here. Mine is a non-traditional view, but we’re living in a non-traditional world. We must fight back and double down. We must use our witnessing powers of persuasion and pressure to protect our own. That includes exposing the weak folly of political leaders outside Belarus, the so-called forces for good, as they convene six-month committees to come up with a forceful reply. Are mandarin oranges Lukashenko’s favorite snack? Cut him off!
Too late to save his life?
As the Ryanair flight sped toward Minsk, Protasevich told all within earshot that he was a dead man. By now, he may be. The time between May 23 and the Memorial Day weekend—with barely a peep from him save a confession made under obvious duress—is way more than enough for Lukashenko’s storm troopers to exact the kind of blows that leave a scribe crippled and/or brain damaged for life. If life is even on the table as an option by this point.
We know how the EU will react. It will then ban Golden Delicious apples from making their way into Belarus, killing the hopes of fruit salad chefs across the land. And Lukashenko will crow the dictator’s song of victory and take a crow shit all over whatever intrepid journalists are left in his nation.
And from Hong Kong to Saudi Arabia to Myanmar to Gaza City—anywhere that journalists have been attacked, squelched and silenced—killing a reporter will become as easy and routine as taking out the trash.
Stinking business, but it’s gotta get done.
Journalists on the move? Or on the run?
Protasevich deserves far, far, far better than such brutal treatment. Small as my voice may be, I’m calling on the world community to support a free press with substantial penalties that really matter. Taking out the Minsk airport might be a start, though I’m no military man and abhor the thought of even one innocent life lost.
More powerful: What if 1,000 journalists crossed the border into Belarus right now as a show of solidarity? Even for a dictator who lusts to collect enemy journalists like Pokemon cards, he sure as hell can’t catch ’em all.
So long as this event passes without decisive international consequence—and my fear is that it will—then the message is sent. Hijacking a jet is just fine if a journalist is on board. Journalists now and forevermore are fair game. The dam has been broken. And because there is no decisive retribution, there will be no return to normal. In fact, with Putin’s unabashed support, Lukashenko announced a new set of draconian media crackdowns the day after landing his prized catch.
Because, my comrades in Belarus, the press is the enemy of the people. And the proletariat. And our beloved leader, Comrade Alexander Lukashenko, who shall prevail. Uber alles. Seig Heil!