Sometimes we forget why our ancestors were willing to die for free speech, press and religion. Living in the former Soviet Union for the past seven years has greatly increased my appreciation for these freedoms and for those around the world who are still willing to die to establish or protect them.
One of the great journalists of the world was Anna Politkovskaya. Under the corrupt Russian government, she had to come up with such compelling evidence that judges and prosecutors could not ignore it and was, thus, able to force the conviction of 20 men in 15 separate corruption cases.
Yet in some cases her compelling evidence was not enough. In one election, for example, she showed that in some locations more people voted for Russian President Vladimir Putin than there were registered voters. The election was a fraud, she said. Putin expressed scorn and relief soon thereafter when he was informed that Anna had been shot down in cold blood as she took the elevator to her apartment (https://youtu.be/0z-JdLdLky8).
In the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan, where I work as a university professor of media and communications, Oralgaisha Omarshanova was kidnapped and is presumed dead after she refused to quit writing about the dangerous conditions of miners in this country and other controversial topics.
While most Kazakhs are Muslim by tradition, the vast majority seldom attend mosque, wear traditional garb or observe required prayers. But some Islamic leaders are now trying to exert both religious and political control. Laws passed over the past four years have led to the disenfranchising of 60 percent of the faiths represented in the country and tight restrictions on any proselyting activities by those that remain (http://www.eurasianet.org/node/66167).
We sometimes forget that America’s Founding Fathers lived in a world where most nations had an official religion and where it was considered treason to speak or write anything contrary to an official state religion. Some of my ancestors were killed in Switzerland for opposing the official Christian religion there, and other ancestors fled to America from England and Ireland to enjoy freedom of expression. Religion has long been used as an excuse to repress freedom around the world. For that reason freedom of religion is part of the First Amendment that protects free speech and free press.
Neither Kazakhstan’s politicians nor the country’s citizens fully comprehend the importance of free speech, free press and freedom of religion. Many journalists have been physically attacked or imprisoned for their efforts, and free expression for all citizens is being stifled now more than ever since the fall of communism.
As a veteran journalist and former Kennewick city councilman, I think I’ve always appreciated the importance of free expression in our democratic society, but my appreciation has reached new heights living outside that society.
My students are already becoming TV producers, reporters, news editors, and publishers in Kazakhstan. But the progress they can achieve is difficult in a society dominated by former Soviet bureaucrats, greedy robber barons, and those striving to make it another Islamic state.
May we treasure and protect all of these freedoms, and realize that even in today’s world they are rare.