Imprisoned Belarusian journalist Raman Pratasevich is flanked by Belarusian officials as he enters a Ministry of Foreign Affairs-organized press conference in Minsk, Belarus on June 14, 2021. Pratasevich has been forced into several public confessions. (AFP)

Why authoritarian governments force journalists like Belarus’s Raman Pratasevich into public confessions

Forced confessions—sometimes tied to public humiliation—have a long and inglorious history, and were a fundamental component of ancient judicial systems in the East and West. Obtaining a confession, by any means, for centuries was often a key part of achieving a conviction and meting out punishment. At the Salem witch trials, the accused could escape punishment by uttering a confession.

Modern evidence-based trials should have obliterated the cruel practice, but authoritarian governments have found other uses for it, like humiliating and intimidating reporters who might write about the truth—as the world witnessed on May 24 with the first of several televised “confessions” by Belarusian journalist Raman Pratasevich. 

Pratasevich renounced his years of critical journalism that was circulated on the Telegram channel NEXTA, as CPJ documented. His public humiliation took place just one day after the journalist, living in exile, was pulled off a Ryanair flight from Greece to Lithuania that Belarus had diverted to the Minsk airport. 

“It’s incredible, the turnaround time on that [confession],” said Peter Humphrey, in a telephone interview with CPJ. Humphrey is a former journalist who ran afoul of Chinese authorities while conducting a due-diligence investigation for the British pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline, and was forced to confess on Chinese television, along with his wife, after Chinese authorities kept them handcuffed in steel cages for hours of interrogation. “This young man was full of principle. That turnaround is only possible through duress,” he added, noting the crude make-up job evidently covering bruises on Pratasevich’s face. 

Pratasevich’s rapid confession was followed on June 3 by a 90-minute “interview” on Belarusian state TV in which the journalist tearfully praised Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko, according to news reports. Then on June 14, Pratasevich was “paraded” in front of reporters at a Belarusian Foreign Ministry press conference on the divergence of the Ryanair flight, according to a BBC correspondent who quickly left the event as Pratasevich clearly had “no say in the matter” of his appearance. 

Belarus’s State Security Committee, its Central Office of the Investigative Committee, and ONT, the state-owned broadcaster that aired the June 3 interview with Pratasevich, did not respond to CPJ’s emailed requests for comment.

“… The range of calculations that one is having to do in a confined space and circumstance where you have no access to speak to anyone, probably in solitary confinement, probably being beaten. Activists are saying ‘how can Raman [Pratasevich] do this and be so weak?’ I would say go try it yourself.” 

Jason Rezaian

Forced public confessions are already in widespread use against journalists, human rights advocates, and opposition figures—in China, Iran, and Russia, and in Ukraine by Russian-backed separatists. 

Forerunners of the contemporary practice of using confessions as a political tool in China can be traced at least to land reform in the early 1950s, when landlords were dragged in front of the village, and their tenants were invited to hurl abuse—physical and verbal—at them as described in the first-hand account of William Hinton in the book “Fanshen.” Confessions were a key part of instilling party discipline, as documented by the sociologist Martin King Whyte. They went public during the Cultural Revolution and have since become a televised staple in the humiliation of journalists, as CPJ has documented over the years. In one case, a business reporter who accurately reported on deliberations of the Securities Regulatory Commission apologized on air for reporting “through private inquiring” instead of waiting for the commission’s official line. 

An email sent to China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs seeking comment was not answered.

Iran is also a leading abuser. Between 2009 and 2019, Iran broadcast at least 355 forced confessions, according to a 2020 report by the International Federation for Human Rights. That count did not include last year’s cruel broadcast of a forced confession by the journalist Roohollah Zam, who was executed after he was arrested in Baghdad and taken to Tehran. Shortly after Iranian authorities announced Zam’s arrest, state TV aired a video in which Zam, blindfolded in car, apologized and said trusting governments other than Iran is “wrong.” 

Washington Post columnist Jason Rezaian and his journalist wife Yeganeh Rezaian (now an Advocacy Associate at CPJ) both were forced into confessions in Iran while imprisoned there between 2014 and 2016. Jason Rezaian pointed out in a phone interview with CPJ that the standard advice given during hostile environment training for journalists today is to do whatever your captors want to you to. But lying in public doesn’t come easily to journalists whose professional duty is to tell the truth. Rezaian describes “the range of calculations that one is having to do in a confined space and circumstance where you have no access to speak to anyone, probably in solitary confinement, probably being beaten. Activists are saying ‘how can Raman do this and be so weak?’ I would say go try it yourself.” 

“It’s above all a negotiation with yourself,” said Rezaian. “What’s the red line?” Rezaian said he refused to say the lie that he was a spy, working for a foreign government. In the end neither of the confession videos of the Rezaians were fully aired on television.

Rezaian recommends that the U.S. government make more aggressive use of sanctions targeted at individuals involved in the use of forced confessions against journalists and others, such as the Global Magnitsky Act, which imposes financial penalties on individual human rights abusers. 

CPJ emailed Alireza Miryousefi, the head of the media office at Iran’s U.N. mission in New York for comment about the use of televised confessions but did not receive a response. 

Why do governments employ the tactic? Humphrey thinks the governments that use televised confessions believe the forced performances are convincing to many people in their domestic audience, that they persuade many that individuals who oppose or question regime narratives are hypocrites or have ulterior motives. This discredits independent journalists or dissident figures, in the process sowing distrust of all media while scaring journalists away from critical reporting.

Rezaian thinks that after years of broadcasting these kinds of confessions, the audience no longer believes in their truthfulness and governments know that, but the confessions can still take a toll on both the journalists and the audience. “The intent is to humiliate you in front of your compatriots and colleagues,” he said. Referring to Pratasevich, he said: “When you put someone in that situation your goal is to take away their credibility in the future. He will become irrelevant. It’s a war of attrition.”

Arfat Erkin sees an additional motive in the case of his father, the imprisoned Uyghur journalist Erkin Tursun, who was forced to confess in a video published on Chinese news websites on April 9, as CPJ documented. Tursun is serving a 20-year sentence on charges of “inciting ethnic hatred, ethnic discrimination and covering up crimes.” His mother was also detained in 2017 and later released. China’s Foreign Ministry did not respond to a request for comment on the video.

In a telephone interview with CPJ, Erkin, who is a student in the U.S., said he was at first glad to see the video. “It was surprising, a kind of relief that he’s still alive,” he said, after hearing nothing for three years. But then the reality sunk in. He described his formerly bearded father as having a robust, outgoing personality, but the video image showed him shrunken, skinny, and shaved.  Erkin thought of the psychological pain he had to have endured. “Anyone who watched that video would say that it’s nonsense,” he added, noting that his father blinked at least once a second in the 40-second clip, while robotically mouthing words he obviously did not prepare himself. 

Erkin believes that his father’s video was aimed at him personally, as a way for authorities to pressure him to stop activism in the U.S. on the treatment of Uyghurs in China, including taking his parents’ case to the U.N. Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances. He says he won’t stop. 

CPJ Advocacy Associate Yeganeh Rezaian and CPJ Europe and Central Asia Research Associate Elena Rodina contributed reporting.