Not long after Belarus diverted an international flight, forced it to land in Minsk and then arrested journalist Roman Protasevich on board, an online campaign to discredit him began.
Stories alleging that Protasevich had ties with neo-Nazis appeared initially in Russian-language media and quickly spread in dozens of languages.
Photographs of young men doing Nazi salutes or wearing SS insignia began to pop up on social media, claiming to show Protasevich in his younger years in what experts called a disinformation campaign similar to others against Kremlin critics.
Reporters tracked down the man in the Nazi salute photo.
Konstantin Akhromenko, a young Belarusian, confirmed his identity and said that the picture was taken “10 to 12 years ago.”
“We were never Nazis. We took such photos just for laughs, because the Belarusian state propaganda called us Nazis,” Akhromenko said.
Similarly, the man in the SS helmet turned out to be not Protasevich, but Eduard Lobov, a former Belarusian political prisoner who became a volunteer fighter in eastern Ukraine.
Many posts focused on the fact that Protasevich, by his own account, spent time with Ukrainian paramilitary units in eastern Ukraine after Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula in 2014.
Labeling him a “terrorist” and “extremist,” they said that he fought with the Azov battalion.
Protasevich’s family, colleagues and even some Azov fighters said that he was in Ukraine only as a journalist, albeit embedded with Ukrainian forces.
Some online claims about Protasevich contain photos of a young man in a military uniform, but reporters have been unable to verify if it is in fact him.
In some of the pictures that bear a resemblance to him, the young man is wearing a military uniform; in others he is brandishing a Kalashnikov rifle and smiling.
Often he is surrounded by soldiers wearing the insignia of the Azov battalion, a volunteer unit formed in the wake of Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
Vladyslav Sobolevsky, the chief of staff of the Azov battalion from 2014 to 2017, said that Protasevich had joined as a journalist to “help Ukraine and in the future to help his own country.”
“His views were: Lukashenko must leave. Belarus should be free,” Sobolevsky said, referring to Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.
Likewise, Protasevich’s father, Dmitry, who lives in Poland, has said that Roman Protasevich never fought as a soldier.
“My son is and was a journalist. He was in Donbas as a journalist doing his job,” Dmitry Protasevich said.
This was confirmed by Azov commander Andriy Biletsky and by battalion spokeswoman Anastasya Rymar, both of whom said that Roman Protasevich followed the unit only to report on the action and did not take part in the fighting.
The 26-year-old often mentioned his time in Ukraine in interviews, and there is a video of him being treated for a battle wound.
However, he always maintained he was there to document the fighting rather than fight himself.
Euvsdisinfo.eu, a project of the EU’s foreign service set up to combat Russian disinformation, said that there was a deliberate attempt at Roman Protasevich’s online “denigration.”
An article on the project’s website compared these “disinformation efforts” to those seen against Kremlin critics such as anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny.
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