UEFA to monitor ongoing human rights issues in host country
Fears for the safety of journalists and their ability to report freely in Belarus during a planned UEFA football championship have increased following the detention of a prominent dissident editor.
The Women’s Under 19 European Championship is still scheduled to be hosted in 2025 by Belarus whose military authorities this week seized Roman Protasevich by forcing a Ryanair flight to divert to the capital, Minsk.
Against the background of increased interest in women’s sport, the event is highly likely to feature in planning by newsrooms and journalists keen to cover what is being billed as a showcase event for European football and female participation in football.
The News Media Coalition (NMC) said: ‘Reports of human rights abuses and crackdowns on journalists and news organisations continue to raise concerns. We believe UEFA has a key role in ensuring that journalists will be able to properly plan for the event, in the knowledge that they will be able to operate freely, without risk to themselves or to the principles of media freedom.’
In a statement to the NMC UEFA sought to defends its decision to award hosting rights to Belarus: “UEFA takes the respect of fundamental human rights very seriously and the staging documents to all of our events include provisions to this effect.
In 2020/21, the Belarus Football Federation should have hosted the UEFA Congress, the Women’s Under-19 European Championship and the final tournament of the UEFA Futsal Champions League. None of these events actually took place in Belarus.
The UEFA Executive Committee thus eventually decided to award the organisation of the Women’s Under-19 European Championship to the Belarus Football Federation, but only in 2025, that is in four years’ time.
UEFA would not be working with the local football association on the staging of this tournament until 2024 and will keep on monitoring the situation in the meantime, in accordance with UEFA’s Human Rights Policy.”
Reporters Without Borders has placed Belarus as the most dangerous country in Europe for media personnel coming in at 158th place in its 2021 World Press Freedom Index.
Natallia Satskunevich from Viasna Human Rights Centre said: ‘There is no press freedom in Belarus. Only a brave person would be a journalist in Belarus.’
The international community has condemned the actions of President Lukashenko’s government in forcing the Ryanair flight to divert mid-air to make an emergency landing in Minsk where Roman Protasevich was arrested. Minsk confirmed that Lukashenko ordered his military to scramble a Mig-29 fighter to escort the plane.
Protasevich is a former editor of the influential Telegram channels Nexta and Nexta Live and a blogger critical of Lukashenko, was detained by police after his flight was diverted to Minsk national airport. He was was flying on an intra-EU flight from Athens to Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, when the plane was diverted to Minsk. According to online flight data, the plane was over Belarusian airspace when it diverted course but was closer to Vilnius than Minsk.
The Polish prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, said the plane had been “hijacked” and accused Lukashenko of a “reprehensible act of state terrorism”. He said he would demand new sanctions against Belarus at a European Council meeting scheduled for Monday.
Tom Tugendhat, the chair of the UK foreign affairs select committee, said: “If aircraft can be forced to the ground … in order to punish the political opponents of tyrants, then journalists here in the UK, politicians anywhere in Europe will find it harder to speak out.”
He joined counterparts from the US, Ireland, Germany, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Poland and the Czech Republic in condemning the action as “an act of piracy” and calling for the suspension of all overflights. “This act of state terror and kidnapping is a threat to all those who travel in Europe and beyond. It cannot be allowed to stand,” they said in a joint statement.
“We are coordinating with our allies,” said Dominic Raab, the UK foreign secretary. “This outlandish action by Lukashenko will have serious implications.”
Charles Michel, President of the European Council, said EU leaders would decide on the repercussions for Belarus later a meeting today. He said: “I call on Belarus authorities to immediately release the detained passenger and to fully guarantee his rights. EU leaders will discuss this unprecedented incident tomorrow during the European Council. The incident will not remain without consequences.”
Protasevich has been accused by Belarus of terrorism and provoking riots after the Nexta channels became one of the main conduits for organising last year’s anti-Lukashenko protests over elections fraud. Protasevich had been living in exile and Poland had previously rejected an extradition request sent by Minsk.