Free speech in Russia?

By Olena Borodina

On April 26, 1986 the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant blew up and released an unprecedented amount of radioactive particles into the atmosphere.  The accident in the town of Pripyat, Ukraine was classified as a 7 level event (the maximum rate) on the International Nuclear Event Scale. The catastrophe released 400 times more radioactive material than the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and affected all European countries except for the Iberian Peninsula.

It was only two days after the initial explosions, on April 28, that the nuclear disaster became known all around the world. Until that time, the Kremlin was attempting to cover up the deadly seriousness of events unfolding in the country and outside its borders.

Any critical reporting on Chernobyl was banned in order, the government believed, to prevent mass hysteria. The evacuation of Pripyat on April 27, more than 36 hours after the explosion, had been silently completed before the news broke. And it was not the Soviet Union’s mass media that delivered the message. Officials in Sweden, approximately 1,000 km away (700 miles) raised a worldwide alarm about sharply increased levels of radiation. The Kremlin had no choice but to finally admit the accident.

The so-called “silent strategy” still occurs in countries where freedom of press and freedom of speech are non-existent. In the Soviet Union, people feared expressing any thoughts that opposed Kremlin views. They lived in a society where no controversial ideas or politics were allowed. In those days the press would only write what the government told it to; any provocative speech, article, or art was punished.

In the United States, freedom of expression is legally protected by the First Amendment of the constitution. It prohibits laws that limit free speech, and guarantees the right to assembly. Violence against journalists is very rare.

However, in the light of recent tragic events more and more people stress the need for certain limitations on speech. They say that because for some individuals freedom of speech means the “freedom to offend”, hate speech must be restricted. They feel that certain minority groups, religious groups, or practically any delicate social topics need this form of protection.

And they have a point. When, as in the case of Charlie Hebdo, freedom of expression provoked the death of innocents by Islamic radicals, it’s understandable why some people question it. Nevertheless, empowering the government to censor speech is problematic. Their decisions may well be driven by political interests, not moral obligations.

Today, censorship is theoretically illegal in Russia. Yet it is everywhere. Journalists, politicians, and human rights activists who dare to criticize the authorities have to constantly look over their shoulders.

Anna Politkovskaya, an internationally- renowned investigative report, known for her critical articles about Vladimir Putin, was found dead in the elevator of her house on October 7, 2006. She was shot twice in the chest, once in the shoulder, and once in the head at point-blank range.
Natalya Estemirova, Politkovskaya’s colleague, was abducted from her home and later found dead with bullet wounds in the head and chest on July 15, 2009. She was working with Politkovskaya on cases of human rights abuses in Chechnya.

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