Mandela, Annan and… Pussy Riot

Martijn Groenewold

Ales Bialiatski is a Belarussian human and civil rights activist, imprisoned by the Lukashenko regime. He founded the so called Viasna Human Rights Center in Belarus, to provide political prisoners and their families with legal and financial support. His main goal is to achieve freedom of speech and expression in his country. This noble goal and his efforts for this has made him one of the nominees for the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, a yearly prize rewarded by the European Parliament to people who do exceptional efforts to improve freedom of thought and expression in their country.

Next to Bialiatski there are four other nominees: Joseph Francis, the founder of Center for Legal Aid, Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS). This company fights for victims of Pakistans’ severe blasphemy laws. The third nominee is a group of Rwandese prisoners who tried to end the violence in Rwanda through dialogue and other non-violent methods. The fourth are two imprisoned Iranians, a lawyer and a filmmaker who, because of their work, became victims of the regime of the ayatollahs and Ahmedinejhad. And the last nominee is the world-famous group of punkrocking girls called Pussy Riot. Say what? Pussy Riot?! Yes, Pussy Riot.

Freedom of speech, thought and expression comes – in my opinion – with the responsibility to respect other people and their beliefs and opinions. The four nominees for the Sakharov Prize all have one thing in common, compared to Pussy Riot. They have acted with respect to people with different opinions and different views. Pussy Riot expressed their political views in a rather unusual, though sensational way. They decided to literally rock one of the most holy churches in the Russian Orthodox belief. Set aside the fact that I am not a huge fan of their music, they disrespected a huge group of the common Russian people (the majority). Now I know that “progressive art” is something we should accept within the borders of freedom of expression. But when it means that you deliberately hurt the feelings of millions of people, I think those people, or the church that represents those people, has the right to file a lawsuit against the group. Here I have to note that the judicial system in Russia is very disfunctional, were judges are bribed on a daily basis. This means that I don’t agree with the sentence they got from the Russian Court of Justice, I don’t believe they had a fair trial. However, I don’t focus on the disfunctional judicial system here. Pussy Riot performed an act, blew up in a media-hype, and therefore seemed to sort an effect within Russia itself – at least that is how it has been portrayed in Western media. But their influence in Russia itself is rather minimal, compared to for instance the writings, inquiries and efforts of people who work for Novaya Gazeta or The Moscow Times.

Anna Politkovskaya, for instance, never got this prize for her thorough research on the human rights violations in Chechnya and other parts of the Northern Caucasus. She devoted her whole life, she actually gave her life, for the sake of free press, free expression and the improvement of human rights within Russia. Nelson Mandela, Kofi Annan, Aung San Suu Kyi, heroes of our time, won this prize because of their exceptional efforts and achievements for the freedom of thought and expression. I would be suprised – and maybe even ashamed – if the media-hype full of deceiving stories and half-truths about a punkrock group, would cause them to win this prestigious prize. I hope the European Parliament is smart enough to give it to Bialiatski, Francis, Rwandese prisoners or the Iranian filmmaker & lawyer. Pussy Riot put the spotlights on the authoritarian regime in Russia, by violating a symbol of the largest religion in the country. The effect is minimal, and the means of their actions is distasteful and for millions of people even offensive. Please EP, don’t reward Pussy Riot with this prize. Please don’t.

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