Journalist Anton Suryapin was among the first to publish images of teddy bears reportedly found on the ground in in Belarus holding pro-free speech slogans, posting several images on the news website he manages, Belarusian News Photos (www.bnp.by).
The bears were dropped in the early morning of July 4th as part of a publicity stunt carried out by Swedish PR firm Studio Total as a show of support for pro-democracy activists in Belarus.
But at the weekend it emerged that Suryapin had been arrested by Belarusian security police on July 13th and was being detained for 72 hours, according to Russian media reports and reports on Charter 97, a news website associated with the pro-democracy movement in Belarus.
Suryapin’s partner at Belarusian News Photos, Sergey Yagelo, also tweeted about his colleague’s arrest and posted news of the event on the site, explaining that investigators had called Suryapin’s mother to inform her of her son’s arrest.
“He said that Anton Suryapin had been detained for 72 hours to determine the involvement of the editor in the ‘Swedish assault’,” Yagelo wrote, along with a screenshot of text messages from Suryapin saying his apartment had been searched.
Defence ministry officials in Belarus continue to dismiss the Swedish teddy bear drop as a “hoax”, and media in Sweden were also initially sceptical that Studio Total had actually organized and carried out the daring flight into restricted air space.
However, Studio Total at the weekend released nearly 90 minutes of additional video footage shot from the plane which includes scenes from the take-off in Lithuania as well as aerial shots from the town of Ivyanets, the town outside of Minsk where residents reported finding teddy bears on the ground following the July 4th flight.
Article continues below.
A white car can be seen on the ground from which Studio Total founder Per Cromwell shot video of the plane as it flew over Ivyanets.
Experts consulted by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) confirmed that the footage had not been edited and were also able to verify where the plane crossed over the Lithuania-Belarus border with the aid of Google maps.
It remains unclear if Suryapin’s arrest is at all connected to the release of the additional video footage, the first installment of which was posted on July 12th as part of an ongoing effort by Studio Total to certify that the stunt actually took place following initial doubts that the flight was a hoax.
Speaking with The Local following Suryapin’s arrest, Studio Total’s Tomas Mazetti, who was one of the pilots on the plane, said concern over such arrests was “one reason we needed to be vague” in the release information immediately following the drop.
Article continues below.
The images posted by Suryapin on July 4th were among the first to show teddy bears which appear to be identical with the bears dropped over Belarus from the Studio Total plane.
When contacted by The Local on July 5th regarding the images, Suryapin explained they had been sent to him via email.
“I received the pictures from an anonymous person with a dubious e-mail address,” Suryapin told The Local.
The text of the email sent with the pictures claimed the sender was “a few dozen kilometres” outside of Minsk and told of how he or she came across the collection of plush toys.
“At 8 am I went outside and saw the plane flying. He was flying very low, and I even saw the person flying it. I waved to him, and he threw me three bears with flags on parachutes!” the email read, according to Suryapin.
The brazen publicity stunt began when Mazetti and fellow Studio Total colleague Hannah Lina Frey took off from a small airfield in neighbouring Lithuania and penetrated Belarusian airspace headed for the capital Minsk with the aim of dropping 1,000 stuffed bears on the presidential palace of President Alexander Lukashenko.
The agency carried out the teddy bear drop, which took several months of planning and cost roughly 1 million kronor ($143,000) was meant to draw attention to Belarusian opposition groups such as Charter 97 and “Tell the Truth!” which are fighting for free speech in Belarus – a country ruled since 1994 by Lukashenko, who is often referred to as “Europe’s last dictator”.