Kleske is the reader outreach editor and member of The San Diego Union-Tribune Editorial Board. Email him a 150-word letter at email@example.com
As Vladimir Putin rains death, destruction and ungodly hardship on the people of Ukraine and imposes suffering on his own people by exposing Russia to economic sanctions and international disdain, he’s also reminding people in the U.S. about important principles too many of us take for granted.
New polling indicates Americans now rank Putin as one of recent history’s worst international pariahs, placing him behind only Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, Ayatollah Khomeini and Kim Jong Un and just ahead of Fidel Castro and Moammar Gadhafi. Yet many in Russia appear to have a much more favorable view — “appear” because it has always been difficult to discern what Russians really feel about leaders who have great authority to control messages.
That said, some people may be mystified by one non-government organization’s poll that indicated a 58 percent approval rating among Russians for the invasion of Ukraine, with only 23 percent saying they are opposed, and another independent poll that gave Putin a 71 percent overall approval rating, far higher than the range of Gallup Poll approval numbers for presidents Joe Biden (41-57) or Donald Trump (34-49) during their terms in office.
Are Americans expected to take these high marks seriously given the devastation being wrought on the people of Ukraine and Russia? If history holds any clues, many will believe them because that’s the story they are being told by pundits they trust.
In fact, as domestic news outlets shut down, international outlets pull out and social media sites go dark in Russia, it seems increasingly likely the only story Russian citizens will be getting will be one-sided. That’s even more likely as a recently passed “fake news” law in Russia means steep fines and even prison time may await anyone who spreads reports about the invasion that differ from the official party line.
As a journalism instructor at UC San Diego, I often launched a new class with a student survey and discussion on the freedoms guaranteed to all U.S. citizens in the Bill of Rights. I asked students to rank by importance the notions of freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly and government petition, the right to bear arms, to have a trial by jury and so on.
If they ranked freedom of the press as unimportant, as many frequently did because they had never known a world without it, I reminded them what life could be like, noting the words of Thomas Jefferson, who, in weighing a choice between “a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government,” said he would choose the latter.
Average Americans may also forget how important the free exchange of ideas is to our way of life, and thus fail to appreciate the inherent danger of efforts to suppress voting rights, limit the ability to question authority or create laws to reverse democratic election results. Too many steps in that direction could take us to a point of no return.
Russia today should serve as a stark reminder of the Russia of old, before glasnost and the fall of the Berlin Wall, when free speech was not only unlikely but was punishable by a trip to a gulag, for public speakers and their family members. And we should remember it was journalists who helped expose the atrocities and millions of deaths during Ukraine’s Holodomor when Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union tried so hard to keep it secret.
Another lesson we are learning is on censorship. To those who think freedom of the press equates with freedom to spread misinformation, they should know social media sites and letters to the editor sections have a role to play in weeding out untruths. But it is not censorship to refuse to participate in someone else’s lie. Our letters section, for example, runs opinions on a wide spectrum — under guidelines that they are relevant, civil and accurate.
Similarly, those who feel they are being punished for their views by Facebook or Twitter should note what punishment really looks like in countries that don’t protect free speech, where it isn’t taken for granted. Donald Trump could always start his own social media site and any member of any political movement could start a new forum. And people on it would get to decide whether to believe what they see on such sites.
It may sound melodramatic to say people fought and died for the freedoms we enjoy, but it remains a fact. If we allow anyone to cavalierly undermine those freedoms for immediate gain, as Putin is doing today in Russia and as could happen here, we risk all the progress we have made.
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