The Pussy Riot Controversy: Freedom of Speech vs. Breaching the Peace

November 8, 2012

 

All-female Russian punk band Pussy Riot has been thrown into the spotlight following three controversial jail sentences for its members. The women were found guilty of “premeditated hooliganism performed by an organized group of people motivated by religious hatred or hostility”. The arrests followed a spontaneous concert, for which the group are most known for, at the Russian Orthodox Cathedral of Christ the Saviour – it was in this appearance they performed a song that translates to ‘Mother of God Drive Putin Away’.

 

 

This has created an international media storm – but Western media has arguably sensationalised one side of the events at play. Most notably removed from reports by major Western media outlets is the Russian public view. In 2012, an approximate 58 million people openly identified themselves with the Russian Orthodox Church. With lyrics during their performance including attacks on, “the Church’s praise of rotten dictators”, Pussy Riot has offended the Church and subsequently, a majority of the Russian public in direct persecution of their faith. Anatoly Karlin of Al-Jazeera News questions the hypocrisy of Western Pussy Riot supporters, as he asks us all to examine Article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights, which reads:

 

“Everyone has the right of freedom of expression… The exercise of these freedoms, since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such [conditions and restrictions] as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national security… for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or rights of others…”

 

This leads us to question whether or not similar actions and arrests are inherent in the United Kingdom, and why Pussy Riot has generated a media storm and public support from numerous celebrities, including Madonna and Paul McCartney. Does an attack on someone’s faith qualify for arrest, under the need for protection of morals? Whilst some deem the church to be the centre of the attack, others see them as caught in the crossfire and thus, are as a result less sympathetic to the punishments dealt out to the band members.

 

Karlin asks us to consider what the British public would realistically do had the arrests been made against Right Wing protesters using strong language against feminism? Undoubtedly, the reaction seen would be far from the current public outcry –demanding leniency for the musicians. There is thus a fine line between hindering the right to freedom of speech, and breaching the peace, which we must bring to attention if we are to truly understand it.

 

Rachel Denber of CNN takes both sides of the controversy into account, remarking, “There is no basic human right to barge into a church to make a political statement, jump around near the altar, and shout obscenities. But there is most certainly the right not to lose your liberty for doing so, even if the act is offensive”. The women were held awaiting trial for over six months before two were given custodial sentences of two years. While awaiting their trials, Amnesty International UK reports that the women were forbidden from meeting with their families. Following the trial and overwhelming media attention, Yekaterina Samutsevich, the member of the band to be freed after having been given a delayed sentence, has subsequently filed a complaint to the European Court of Human Rights, “for violations of her freedom of speech, lawless criminal persecution and groundless arrest”.

 

Many people will inevitably agree that Pussy Riot have undergone mistreatment by the police and the courts system, as fundamental breaches of their human rights have undoubtedly occurred. However, Western media has yet to question the state of their activism: to portray their political beliefs, they have (although possibly inadvertently) quashed the fundamental faith of a majority of the Russian public. Putin has publicly called for leniency to be shown to the girls during their conviction, leading the girls’ lawyers to believe that “he is clearly worried and traumatised by the international reaction”, again demonstrating the political power they hold via this creation of a media storm.

 

This story is likely to remain in the news whilst the Western public support strives to legitimate their claims for the girls’ freedom. What we can thus far deduce is a need for heightened awareness – by accepting wholeheartedly claims from either side of this undeniably political case is to be a sheep to either end of prominent media. How far is too far when it comes to activism? Sensationalism by both the Russian and Western media has resulted in mass media frenzy. We now question if this is simply the David and Goliath scenario we have read of. What once seemed like a straightforward breach of human rights now appears to be a complex and controversial case, with more to it than meets the eye.

 

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