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Contextualizing freedom

Posted on March 16, 2022 by Vauxhall Advance

Two weeks ago, the Russian Federation passed a law which essentially made political descent illegal and punishable by up to 15 years in prison for publishing reports which undermine the Kremlin and defy the official reports of Russia’s approved media channels. Most major news outlets including BBC, CNN, and the CBC have suspended reporting from within Russia, as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continues to erode the fabric of Ukraine’s autonomy, and the safety of its citizens. Russia banned Facebook, while Canadians took to the platform in a show of support for Ukrainians. Just a few weeks ago, many people accessed livestreams of border crossings and protests, and posted their comments on news sites and social media. In Canada, residents printed and posted cries out outrage against the federally elected party, or the leader of Alberta, or their locally-elected officials, without fearing being jailed. Some newspapers printed political cartoons that ruffled feathers, and some printed articles which exasperated others because they felt it did not represent them or their party alignment. While journalists here in Canada have to answer to the public, we can be confident we will not be tortured and detained for disagreeing with our governments.

This month, a 38-year-old journalist from Saudi Arabia, who was sentenced to 1,000 lashes and a decade in prison, completed his sentence for writing in defiance of the Islamic faith. He remains incarcerated. A recent report said Raif Badawi was, “arbitrarily detained solely for freely expressing his opinions.” Activists around the world are now calling for the release of Saudi blogger Raif Badawi after he completed his “unjust” 10-year jail term this week. Badawi was previously awarded the press freedom prize by Reporters Without Borders but was arrested and incarcerated in 2012 after being charged with “insulting Islam.”

A 2021 report by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said China is “the world’s biggest captor of journalists,” with at least 130 journalists known to be detained. China currently ranks 177th out of 180 surveyed countries for freedom of the press. Canada ranks 15th on this list of countries with the most press freedom, and yet, the comparisons between Canada and China or North Korea are rampant. According to the BBC, “China (continues to) justify the arrests of reporters and citizen journalists by accusing them of provoking trouble.” One such journalist, and former attorney, Zhang Zhan, began documenting what she saw on the streets of Wuhan in 2020 in livestreams and articles. It was reported she was found guilty of, ”picking quarrels and provoking trouble.” This loosely defined charge is often applied to cases involving activists who challenge official government propaganda channels. This is not the case in Canada. It just isn’t.

However, in Canada, freedom of choice and freedom of speech does not guarantee freedom from societal consequences. You are free to fly flags that are associated with white supremacist ideology, but that doesn’t mean your neighbours will tolerate it, or not confront you. You are free to call newspapers and yell at their reporters or interns, that doesn’t guarantee your letter to the editor will be published. You are free to refuse to wash your socks, but that doesn’t mean some people will not avoid your presence and call you stinky.

Depending on which publications you read, there are plenty that publish articles that are highly critical of the federal government, especially in a time as politically polarized as 2022. Other publications publish commentary which interrogates the sanity of the provincial leaders, and are voracious in pointing out their past mistakes, and contradictions. Editorials like this often posit ideas that are critical of institutions. While voicing our opinions doesn’t necessarily mean these proclamations are entirely free from all consequences, I am confident the RCMP will not detain us for criticizing the current provincial government or authorities of contradicting the province’s Critical Infrastructure Defense Act as protests very much blocked critical infrastructure.

You can freely read a religious text you subscribe to. You can watch or listen to whatever mainstream or non-mainstream media you choose. You can write to your elected officials and express disappointment, rage, or praise. You can put signs and stickers on your trucks that condemn the prime minister. You can post “God is dead”, “save Alberta parks”, or, “glory to the lord”, signs on your lawn, if you so choose, and trust you will not be sentenced to decades-long prison terms or 1,000 lashes.

This does not mean it is a utopia, but it does mean these comparisons to racist regimes are inaccurate and lessen the brutality of people with significantly less freedom.

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