Is there free speech in Russia? These writers think not

Hundreds of authors – including Jonathan Franzen, Salman Rushdie, and Margaret Atwood – have signed an open letter criticizing Russian laws which they say 'strangle free speech.'

Morry Gash/AP
Members of a Russian honor guard raise an Olympic flag during a welcoming ceremony in Sochi, Russia.

On the eve of the opening of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, more than 200 authors from 30 countries have published an open letter criticizing recent Russian laws that “strangle free speech,” joining a wave of protestors denouncing rights abuses in Russia.

Anti-gay and blasphemy laws “place a chokehold on the right to express oneself freely,” the letter, published in the Guardian Thursday, states. 

Among the prominent author-signatories are Jonathan Franzen, Margaret Atwood, Salman Rushdie, Gunter Grass, Julian Barnes, Neil Gaiman, and Orhan Pamuk. Notably, as the Guardian points out, Russia's foremost contemporary novelist, Lyudmila Ulitskaya, is also a signatory to the letter.

They condemn three specific laws: gay propaganda laws that prohibit “the propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations” among minors; blasphemy laws that criminalize religious insult; and the recent recriminalization of defamation laws.

These laws "specifically put writers at risk", according to the letter, and its signatories "cannot stand quietly by as we watch our fellow writers and journalists pressed into silence or risking prosecution and often drastic punishment for the mere act of communicating their thoughts.”

The letter reads:

“A healthy democracy must hear the independent voices of all its citizens; the global community needs to hear, and be enriched by, the diversity of Russian opinion. We therefore urge the Russian authorities to repeal these laws that strangle free speech, to recognise Russia's obligations under the international covenant on civil and political rights to respect freedom of opinion, expression and belief – including the right not to believe – and to commit itself to creating an environment in which all citizens can experience the benefit of the free exchange of opinion.”

In signing the letter, the author-signatories are joining a growing band of protestors denouncing the Russian government’s laws.

The anti-gay propaganda law in particular has drawn international attention. President Vladmir Putin has said it is aimed at protecting Russian children from propaganda about homosexuality and pedophilia, the Guardian reports. He has claimed the law is not discriminatory and that gay people were welcome to attend the Sochi Olympics as long as they “leave children alone.”

That comment, as well as the other blasphemy and defamation laws, spurred authors, including Neil Gaiman, to speak out.

"I believe that free expression – freedom of speech, freedom to write, to argue, to disagree – is the most important freedom we have as human beings. I hate to see that being stifled in Russia. The solution to speech and writing that offends you is to speak and write about it in your turn, not to criminalize it or to try and eradicate it,” Gaiman told the Guardian.

"Criminalizing those who write positively about gay people and gay themes, or who write negatively about the church, criminalizing defamation, these are all things that clamp down on the exchange of ideas, that push dissent and stories underground. I hope that Mr. Putin reads the open letter; I hope he changes course."

Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.

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