Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has criticized Margarita Simonyan, the editor in chief of several Russian state-controlled media outlets, for making public comments that amounted to “open support” for an ongoing crackdown on independent media in Belarus.
On May 23, Belarus dispatched a fighter jet to intercept a Ryanair commercial flight and forced it to land in Minsk, citing a purported bomb threat. Once the plane was on the ground, journalist and opposition activist Raman Pratasevich and his Russian girlfriend, who were both aboard the flight, were detained. No bomb was found on the aircraft.
The incident triggered international outrage, calls for Pratasevich's release, as well as additional sanctions from the United States and threats of sanctions and more serious actions from the European Union.
However, Simonyan expressed her admiration for the Belarusian government and congratulated authoritarian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka for the move.
“I never thought that I would envy Belarus in any way. But now I somehow envy. [Lukashenka] performed beautifully,” she tweeted.
Simonyan, which the Paris-based RSF described as “a pillar of Russian propaganda,” has led state-owned RT television since 2005, as well as the state-funded media group Rossiya Segodnya, which controls the Sputnik network.
Her comments on Belarus “amount to welcoming the crackdown on Belarusian journalists, which is shocking coming from someone who often invokes freedom of the press when it comes to defending the interests of the media organizations that she runs,” RSF Secretary-General Christophe Deloire said in a statement dated June 2.
Deloire cited Article 2 of the Munich Charter of ethics stating that journalists should “defend freedom of information, comment, and criticism.”
“Simonyan is doing the opposite, which says a lot about her idea of freedom,” he added.
Belarus has seen unprecedented protests against Lukashenka, who has run the country since 1994, following a disputed August presidential election that the opposition says was rigged and many Western nations have refused to acknowledge.
Lukashenka has directed a brutal postelection crackdown in which almost 30,000 people have been detained, many sentenced to lengthy prison terms, hundreds beaten, several killed, and journalists targeted.
Belarus fell five places to 158th out of 180 countries in the 2021 World Press Freedom Index compiled by RSF.