In the hours before Roman Protasevich boarded his fateful flight to Lithuania, authorities in Belarus were on the trail of another critical journalist.
Arina Malinovskaya, a young reporter working for the Polish satellite channel Belsat, had interviewed two former Belarusian police officers. While not especially revelatory, their account of how authorities told them to go pursue protesters after last August's disputed presidential election was enough to attract attention in Minsk.
Days after it aired, Malinovskaya hid as police banged loudly on her apartment door. Then the electricity to her flat was cut. The 23-year-old knew it was time to leave the country.
So carrying just her passport, money and a few essentials in her handbag, she fled for Kyiv. She arrived in the Ukrainian capital on May 23, the same day Ryanair's Greece-to-Lithuania flight was controversially diverted to Minsk and Protasevich arrested.
“I had to leave Belarus to protect myself,” Malinovskaya told Euronews in Kyiv. “I have done nothing illegal. Journalism should not be a crime.”
But, while the escape may have saved Malinovskaya, it has endangered her family.
Not long after arriving, she received a call from her brother-in-law from inside a Belarusian jail. He had just been arrested, and he told her that he would not be released until she returns to Belarus to face prosecution. A man, identifying himself as from the Leninsky District Department of Internal Affairs in Belarus, took the phone and ordered her to come back to Belarus, threatening to go after her grandparents if she refused.
"They want to lure me in this way, for me to come," said Malinovskaya. "To pressure me somehow, manipulate me. But I will not take it - I will not go back there. I just hope it ends soon.
"I understand that if I am manipulated (by the phone call), it will only knock me down and it will not lead to anything good. I just hope that everything will be alright because for good people everything cannot continue to be bad."
Belarus' disputed presidential election
Belarus was plunged into crisis last August when long-time leader Alexander Lukashenko claimed victory in a presidential election. He was credited with winning an 80 per cent share of the vote. Critics say the vote was rigged in his favour.
Tens of thousands hit the streets to protests in the aftermath of the election. Police detained more than 30,000 people in the subsequent crackdown. Protests have since died down, but authorities have targeting opposition supporters and independent journalists.
Among them, Protasevich, who was detained on May 23 after his flight was diverted to the Belarusian capital. Belarus claimed a security threat prompted the flight course change, but Lukashenko's critics branded the move state-sponsored air piracy.
'The regime has crossed many red lines'
In a second call, Malinovskaya's brother-in-law, again calling from custody, asked her again when she was coming back to Belarus. "They [the police] won't let me go until you say something intelligible about your arrival," he told her.
The journalist told Euronews this was her last communication with him, adding she was unsure what had happened to her relative.
“I knew that it would be a perilous job to work for Belsat TV,” Malinovskaya added. “I weighed all the risks, but I thought: if not me, who will take this job? People should know about what is going on in the country.”
The pressure on Malinovskaya comes after two other Belsat colleagues -- TV journalists Katerina Andreyeva, 27 and Daria Chultsova, 23 -- were jailed for two years in February after being arrested in November while live-streaming an unauthorised protest from an apartment.
Malinovskaya said she wanted to avoid a similar fate, but feels terrible about leaving everything behind.
“There was no such pressure on journalists in Belarus before the presidential election in August last year,” she said. “Now, I am not allowed back into the country. I understand that. Things are much worse now.”
She said Belsat journalists had been working without press accreditation because Belarus wanted to stifle critical voices.
“Lately, the regime has crossed many red lines,” said Aleksy Dzikawicki, Belsat's editorial director of information programming. “It was never easy for us to work in Belarus, but our journalists were never arrested for longer than two to three weeks previously. Two of our colleagues are now imprisoned for two years.
“That is the first red line. The second is the kidnapping of relatives and the demand for journalists to come to police stations. It is terrible. It is regime terror against its own citizens and its own journalists. It never happened before.”
Stanislav Ivashkevich is a producer of investigative and analytic programmes at Belsat.
“The threats towards family members are relatively new, and threats are definitely picking up in scale,” he said. “Journalists in Belarus do not really have any protection at this point, and the treatment now is harder than ever before.”
He said prisons are very overcrowded and that police sometimes put a bucket with chlorine in the cells to make it harder to breathe. Journalists are being mistreated, he added, but the most brutal methods are saved for opposition activists.
“The opposition activists are sometimes put in solitary cells without any beds," he claimed. "It is freezing, and they can only sleep for ten or fifteen minutes before they need to get up and do some physical activity to keep warm. Some opposition activists are said to have died in prison. We also hear of a spike in torture.”
After Protasevich, Aliaksei Shota, the chief editor of a popular Internet news site in one of Belarus’ largest cities, became one of the latest journalists to be detained.
In May, the Belarusian government raided the offices and closed the website of TUT.BY, one of the country's largest independent news portals.
“The first goal for the government was to suppress and stop the big protests that we saw last year," Kamil Klysinski, a senior fellow at the Centre for Eastern Studies, a think tank focussing on Belarus, told Euronews. "It accomplished that sometime this winter. Hardly anyone goes out on the streets now.
"Now the government looks back to find leaders and critical voices, and I am afraid what we have seen recently is just the first step.
“Their behaviour goes against any standards. One goal is to hurt and revenge all main opponents both abroad and inside the country. They want to send the clear signal that the authorities can even detain you - even if you are abroad.
“They have started to go against family members, parents. They have no limits now, and I am afraid that we will see much more of this.
"Lukashenko is developing a machine, trying to control everything, and which is ready to destroy everything.
"Belarus has developed into something close to a totalitarian state.”
Euronews contacted Belarus' foreign affairs ministry to respond to claims in this article. It had not responded by the time of publication.
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