The disinformation targeting Belarus’ Roman Protasevich
First Draft uses cookies to distinguish you from other users of our website. They allow us to recognise users over multiple visits, and to collect basic data about your use of the website. Cookies help us provide you with a good experience when you browse our website and also allows us to improve our site. Check our cookie policy to read more. Cookie Policy.

The disinformation targeting Belarus’ Roman Protasevich

A Ryanair plane after it landed in Vilnius, Lithuania. (REUTERS/Andrius Sytas)

The UK and EU have begun closing their airspaces to Belarusian airlines in response to the “state-sponsored hijacking” of the Ryanair flight carrying opposition blogger Roman Protasevich — and his subsequent arrest. With unclear details about the sequence of events, along with the reported presence of both Belarusian and Russian intelligence agents aboard the flight, a mix of unevidenced claims, misleading narratives and outright disinformation spread widely.

Belarus’s official version of events — read out in a letter purportedly from Hamas to Belarusian officials — is that the Palestinian militant group said a bomb onboard would be detonated unless the EU withdrew its support for Israel. The outlandish claim was swiftly denied by Hamas itself, which had several days prior agreed to a ceasefire with Israel. Some also pointed out the incongruity that a bomb threat for a flight between Athens and Vilnius, Lithuania would be sent to authorities in Belarus, which is not part of the EU.

As European nations scrambled to fast-track sanctions against the Belarusian government — Europe’s “last dictatorship” — Belarus’s state outlets ramped up disinformation about Protasevich and the opposition movement via online platforms such as Telegram. One false claim purporting Protasevich’s affiliation with Ukraine’s nationalistic Azov battalion, sourced to an anonymous Telegram channel known for spreading talking points favorable to authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko, has been amplified through repetition in local media.

Meanwhile, a “confession” video featuring Protasevich was published on another anonymous pro-government Telegram channel and widely broadcast on state TV and affiliated social media channels. In the video, Protasevich — with what appear to be marks and bruises on his face — admits to “plotting riots” in Minsk, the Belarusian capital. Critics of Lukashenko expressed concerns that the video was filmed under duress. Belarus has a history of mistreating political prisoners, including torture and forced confessions. — Yevgeny Kuklychev


This article is from our daily briefing email newsletter. Subscribe for the key stories caught by our monitoring team each day, and be sure to check out our weekly briefing the best misinformation reads.

A roundup of the latest and most important misinformation narratives that you need to know about each day.

A weekly review of the best misinformation reads and talking points from around the world.

News from First Draft and invitations to all of our training and events.

Get briefings and updates delivered direct to your inbox.