Political dissidents have come under a great amount of pressure by the Russian authorities. From the trial and imprisonment of members of the Russian band Pussy Riot to the recent case involving the Arctic 30, the crew of the Greenpeace ship Arctic Sunrise, expressing an opinion contrary to that of the establishment has become a dangerous act.
Among the crew of the Arctic Sunrise were two journalists documenting their lives. One name that has become a rallying call for critics of the crew’s treatment is Kieron Bryan, a video journalist hired by Greenpeace, facing the exact same charges as the other crew members for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Twitter has filled up with calls to free him, and his local MP has met with the Russian ambassador to the UK to try and negotiate his release.
Journalism is, all in all, an action of free speech. It may not be convenient to governments, and it may challenge the status quo, but that is its role. It is fundamentally wrong to stamp down on dissident views that hold governments to account. Just because a viewpoint is unpopular doesn’t mean that it is without merit, and stamping down on these views is completely incompatible with democracy. Journalists must be allowed to report on events, and, if their opinions don’t match up with the official government line, that must be respected.
“They were threatened with guns and knives and detained on trumped up charges to defend Gazprom’s oil interests. Who are the real hooligans here?” – Ben Ayliffe
The charges of piracy have now been reduced to ‘Hooliganism‘, defined by the Russian authorities as, “gross violation of public order, expressing obvious disrespect to society, committed using the objects, used as weapons, by an organized group and accompanied by resistance to a representative of the authorities.” This is a vague definition that seems to be used just to persecute those who disagree with the Russian status quo.
Bryan’s actions were not consistent with the charges against him, and the actions of the crew of the Arctic Sunrise were acts of peaceful protest, not hooliganism or piracy. This is equally true of Pussy Riot’s protest, for which several members of the group were imprisoned (with one currently en route to a Siberian prison colony). Sometimes activism can offend, but this does not give fair leave to clamp down on dissenters. We must recognise their opinions, and judge them for their worth.
According to Ben Ayliffe at Greenpeace International, “The Arctic 30 are innocent of all charges. There can be no justification for locking them up in a cell in Murmansk. This was an entirely peaceful protest in international waters to shine a light on Gazprom’s reckless Arctic oil drilling plans.” He continued to say “Eleven warning shots were fired across the Arctic Sunrise, bullets were fired into the water next to the protesters, they were threatened with guns and knives and detained on trumped up charges to defend Gazprom’s oil interests. Who are the real hooligans here?”
In a multitude of ways, the situation in Russia is becoming hostile towards freedom of speech. A single, government-sanctioned viewpoint is being promoted, at the expense of journalists such as Kieron Bryan, activists like the Arctic 30 and Pussy Riot. Russian society is being shaped by a single conservative agenda, with no respect paid to dissenting voices. It is tyranny of the majority in all ways.