You may have seen Filibuster’s Twitter coverage on the recent assassination of Boris Nemtsov. Jack Mountford explains compares how our freedoms compare to the dying flower of free speech in Putin’s Russia.
Where In The World?
By Jack Mountford
| The Moscow march commemorated Boris Nemtsov’s death and promoted free speech
Tuesday, 3 March marked the funeral of Boris Nemtsov, the murdered Russian opposition leader and liberal politician. His daughter, Zhanna Nemtsova, told the BBC that his death was related to her father’s position as the “most powerful leader of the opposition in Russia”. She also accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of being “politically responsible” for his death. Nemtsov himself had been an outspoken critic of President Putin since 2000, and was due to lead a major peace rally against Russian involvement in the war in Ukraine and the financial crisis it had caused. This was just before he was shot four times in the back, walking near the Kremlin with his girlfriend, who was herself, left unharmed.
In the aftermath of his assassination, the organisers of the Vesna (Spring) peace march transformed it into a powerful memorial for Nemtsov. According to the organisers, over 50,000 marched to protest against the government, carrying flowers and banners reading “I am not afraid”. Eventually two Chechens were arrested by the FSB (Russia’s security service) in connection with the murder, but opposition activist Vladimir Milov dismissed it as “so predictable that there’s nothing to comment on.”
So how free are the people of Russia, the journalists and the opposition politicians and the activists to criticise their Government?
Sadly for the people of Russia, those rights are being diminished. In any governmental system, there will be tension between the interests of the government, and those of the individual. That’s why protest happens. And that right to protest, to express your views whether they align with those of the Government or not, is pretty fundamental.
In the Soviet Union, the interests of the State always took priority. But with the dissolution of the USSR and the establishment of the new Russian Federation, there was new hope that these two interests could coexist peacefully. But these hopes may not have been realised. According to a report by Emory University in the United States, “freedom of expression in Russia appears to be slowly eroding”. The think tank Freedom House, which conducts research on democracy and political freedom, lists the press of Russia as ‘Not Free’. There are a number of examples to support this.
One newspaper which has suffered is Novoya Gazeta. Established and partly-owned by Mikhail Gorbachev, whose policies of Glasnost and Perestroika inadvertently led to the collapse of the USSR, this newspaper is known for its critical and investigative coverage of Russian political affairs. No less than six of its journalists have been murdered since 2001 in connection with their investigations. Notably, they include Anna Politkovskaya, who was assassinated in 2006 after her opposition to the Second Chechen War and her criticism of Putin.
Indeed, opposition activists with incriminating information do seem to have a habit of being murdered. Nemtsov is among them. According to friends, he was preparing to publish a report titled “Putin and the War”, which focused on Russia’s role in the Ukraine Conflict.
Of course, Russian officials have denied any allegations of involvement, despite plenty of evidence to the contrary. Probably the most famous example though is Alexander Litvinenko, who fled Russia after accusing the government of playing a role in the murder of businessman Boris Berezovsky. In 2006, he fell ill and later became the first known victim of lethal Polonium-210 radiation poisoning. A British investigation pointed to Andrey Lugovoy, a member of the Russian Federal Protective Service. Russia has denied requests for his extradition.
|Russia’s most high profile dissident, Alexei Navalny (right), was given a suspended sentence for embezzlement by a judge in a Moscow court, while his brother, Oleg, behind bars, was sent to jail for the same offence.
(Photo: The Guardian)
And it’s not just murder. Opposition activists and political dissidents often find themselves faced with harsh (and questionable) jail sentences. Alexei Navalny, a major opposition leader and a friend of Nemtsov, was jailed for handing out leaflets for an opposition rally on the subway, preventing him from attending Nemtsov’s funeral. Other victims include members of the punk band “Pussy Riot”, who’s protest in a Moscow cathedral in 2012 led to two members being incarcerated in a corrective labour facility. These arrests and assassinations have led to a climate of fear among opposition members in Russia. Zhanna Nemtsova stated in her interview that “the opposition is beheaded and everybody is frightened”.
So how does this compare to the UK?
The fact that my fellow writers and I are able to offer criticism towards the government is a testament to our freedom of speech. Of course, there is widespread debate currently over what kind of things people should be free to say, but overall, we are rather privileged. We are able to protest freely, and express our opinions to whoever is willing to listen. Overall, our views and interests are able to coexist with those of the government.
Of course, there have been some issues. The fallout from the Edward Snowden leaks in 2013, and the revelation of mass surveillance, led to some newspapers being harassed by the security services. In particular, The Guardian was subject to prior restraint, where censorship is imposed on expression before the expression actually takes place. Journalists also suffered property destruction by GCHQ operatives following publication of documents relating to Snowden, the PRISM surveillance program and the NSA.
|President Putin: Many believe he has stoked the climate of fear.
All in all though, we in Britain are extraordinarily privileged to enjoy such freedom of expression, which is a fundamental right in any democratic society. And we should use this freedom to its full potential, in order to hold the government to account. Sadly, the people of Russia do not yet hold equal freedom. Putin’s presidency has coincided with multiple limitations on the freedom to criticise the Government. A climate of fear has been created, but fortunately some Russians refuse to be afraid.
Boris Nemtsov will serve as their symbol.
Sources: Freedom House, Emory University, BBC News, The Guardian, The Telegraph
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Jack Mountford is an 18-year-old writer for Filibuster, currently studying History and Politics at the University of Sheffield. He is interested primarily in issues of international relations and security, focusing particularly on China and the geopolitical situation in the Asia-Pacific region. In his limited spare time, he enjoys reading, BBC documentaries and good quality Cheddar cheese.
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