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Why The Arrest Of Journalist Raman Pratasevich In Belarus Matters

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

We turn now to Belarus, where journalist Raman Pratasevich remains behind bars. Last week, Belarus took the shocking step of forcing a commercial flight carrying Pratasevich to land in the country's capital, where he was immediately arrested. And in Myanmar, authorities arrested American journalist Danny Fenster just as he was about to board a flight to the United States. They are not the only ones. Authoritarian leaders across the world are openly trying to control the flow of information at the source, the journalist.

Jason Rezaian writes for The Washington Post's Global Opinions section, and he joins us now to discuss this. Thank you so much for being with us.

JASON REZAIAN: It's great to be here, Lulu.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You have firsthand experience facing arrest for your journalism. We'll remind our listeners you spent 544 days in Iranian prison before your release in 2016. Let's start just by giving some insight into what journalists in places like Belarus and Myanmar are going through right now.

REZAIAN: Well, I think doing your job as a journalist in a country like that comes with all sorts of hazards. It also comes with a lot of limitations. When you're working for a large legacy organization like I was, The Washington Post, you assume that you have a certain level of protection. And in these cases, they don't have that kind of major international news outlet to rely on for support, so you're kind of defenseless. It's sort of an indication of how important this work is that strongmen leaders find themselves so deathly afraid of the work that independent journalists do.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I suppose what is striking is that both governments made no effort to hide when they moved in on journalists. I mean, your colleague, dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, was killed by Saudi agents in a third country, Turkey. What signal is it intended to send to the people living in these countries?

REZAIAN: Well, I think we need to look back as we move forward. And because there was no accountability for the murder of Jamal and for the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia in Malta and Jan Kuciak in Slovakia during the Trump administration, I think a lot of these leaders in different parts of the world think to themselves, OK, the United States, who traditionally has been the country that has been most vocally in support of free media wherever it existed, is nowhere to be found. This weekend, the U.S. and several other democratic nations put a statement out talking about the importance of holding press freedom violators accountable. Ultimately, you know, words aren't very meaningful to these type of leaders. They respond to action, and they respond to pressure.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We are seeing, though, that the risk-reward calculations are shifting. A lot of these authoritarian regimes are already under heavy sanctions, and so the sort of things that can be usually used to limit the kind of activities they take are sort of less and less effective.

REZAIAN: Well, I think the sorts of sanctions that have traditionally become the go-to weapon against bad behavior, as we've seen over and over again, disproportionately affect the people of those countries. I think it's time to personalize sanctions - go after the leaders themselves, enforce travel bans, seize their assets in other parts of the world. But we're living in a moment where everything is essentially transparent. It's almost impossible to hide your bad deeds wherever you are in the world. Journalists and normal citizens can uncover and disseminate information within seconds. So I think they're fighting a losing battle ultimately if they're trying to suppress information, and so they rely on trying to beat people down and scare the masses within their countries and in surrounding countries to keep quiet.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And so I guess this is what I'm hearing you say it's ultimately about. When they snatch Pratasevich from a flight going over the country, the message is really for internal consumption. Like, we will get you wherever you go.

REZAIAN: Wherever you are, yeah. We will track you down. And, you know, that's why I think that the response from democratic governments has to be much stricter and stiffer. Now, lots of countries are now saying we won't fly over Belarus, and as you know, using airspace is one source of revenue for a lot of countries. So, you know, that's a certain amount of money that will disappear from the Belarusian coffers. But ultimately, you know, is that going to be the slap on the wrist that gets them to stop repressing journalists? Probably not.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And so is your view that this might be a tactic that's here to stay?

REZAIAN: I think it is until we find significant and effective deterrents to this kind of behavior. I don't think that we can pin it all on the Trump presidency. I think Trump was probably more a symptom than the cause of this problem. But we have to figure out a way to combat this sort of full-frontal attack on independent information and critical information, and I don't think that we've done a good enough job of standing up for one another.

For me, as somebody who's dealt with this, my position is, I don't care what somebody's politics is. As long as they're being honest and they aren't a state propagandist, whatever country they're in, I have a responsibility to stand up and say, hey, protect journalists, because so many of my colleagues did that for me. And I think this issue is, unfortunately, rather esoteric to a lot of us who work in places where it's seemingly quite free. You don't really understand the risks to your person, to your family, to your livelihood, to your reputation until you undergo one of these things. And, you know, I'm here to tell you, it's a terrible fate.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Jason Rezaian - columnist for The Washington Post's Global Opinions section and author of "Prisoner," about his own experience in detention in Iran. Thank you very much.

REZAIAN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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