As a journalist, there are few rights that I value more than freedom of expression. My uncensored social media feeds bring me boundless happiness in the form of my daily dose of news, pictures of shaved alpacas, viral memes and more. My uncensored newspapers allow me to feel caught up on the latest international occurrences, even when in actuality, all I read are the comics and the sports section. And my uncensored television brings me endless hours of procrastination, Game of Thrones marathons and sometimes even occasional news.
In America, media is used not only as a method of communication and relaying of news, it is also a means of self-promotion, self-expression and societal criticism. We post our blog posts, tweets, "Thanks, Obama!" memes and pug pictures with wild abandon, only rarely pausing to consider the rights that make our obnoxiously relentless status updates possible.
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
The First Amendment. As a freshman in Introduction to Newspaper, my least favorite part of the entire course was the memorization of this right, yet I -- like many other foolish American citizens -- failed to realize how lucky we are to have this right that protects our freedom to express what we want, when we want, how we want.
With the First Amendment, we stay connected to and informed of happenings both within our nation and across the globe, and are given practically unlimited freedom to provide our insights and opinions on these issues. Without it, we are left in the dark and without a voice, a prospect that should frighten many U.S. citizens. And yet, this censorship scenario is exactly what occurs in many countries around the world, including Iran, Eritrea, Cuba and China, among many others.
In Ukraine, a nation that has recently been in our news for the 2014 Crimean crisis, freedom of the press is something that has been absent for far too long. Since Viktor Yanukovych was elected president of Ukraine in January of 2010, the quality of mass media has declined significantly, from being one of the least censored post-Soviet nations to one of the most censored. From 2010 to 2014, there have been numerous reports of human rights violations, including censorship of prominent news stations through withdrawal of news reports, arbitrary arrests of journalists known for publishing criticisms of the Yanukovych government and even physical abuses of journalists, resulting in Ukraine's press freedom being rated as 127th out of 180 nations on Reporters Without Borders' press freedom index.
Even without the physical abuses, these acts -- including censorship of any manner -- are in direct violation of article 19 of the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights, yet clearly have not been addressed by the Ukrainian government as such.
With a collectivized, government-censored media in place in Ukraine, the citizens of Ukraine have been denied several of their basic human rights for the past five years. Far more than being simply a source for news and current events, newspapers and other mass media outlets provide a voice for the people as well as a place where officials can be held accountable and questioned by any and all citizens. Without an unrestricted, open system of national broadcast communications, even the most basic of freedoms -- the right to know -- has been kept from Ukrainian citizens.
Article 19 doesn't just call for freedom of the press. It calls for freedom of expression, which means that all bloggers, all journalists, all citizens of Ukraine have a right to voice their opinion without fear of persecution or censorship of any form, regardless of whether that opinion is criticizing the government or not.
While the situation in Ukraine has certainly improved since the departure of President Yanukovych in February of 2014, human rights abuses have continually been reported by the United Nations, and the arrival of Petro Poroshenko as President is concerning for the future of Ukrainian media censorship as well, especially considering his background as the owner of a large media corporation which he has reportedly censored in the past. Recently, Ukrainian journalists have addressed these concerns with an open letter to President Poroshenko, who has promised to build a "new country," including the process of media reform.
Although the future of Ukrainian media is bleak, we can slow the erosion of media censorship by educating local journalists of their press rights, contacting local officials and informing citizens of Ukraine -- as well as in the United States -- of the basic human rights that are being denied by the Ukrainian government. Already, numerous organizations including Reporters Without Borders, Ukraine's Institute of Mass Information, the International Research and Exchanges Board (IREX) and even groups within the United Nations have created programs that help expand legal support to challenge censorship laws and raise awareness of these problems.
Join the movement; spread the news. Tell your neighbors, tell your friends and family; tell everyone who knows anyone about the abuses and violations that are occurring in Ukraine. Maybe one person can't undo all the damage that Yanukovych has inflicted on the Ukrainian media, but a group of people can certainly make an impact. Freedom of expression is a human right.
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