Who is free to protest?

The right to voice dissent is considered key to the proper functioning of a democracy. Josh Smith surveys the lessons we can learn from these supposed democracies where this right to protest seems to be deteriorating.

Josh Smith
9th February 2021
Image Credit: Pixabay
For a healthy British democracy, learning from foreign protests is indispensable. In current affairs, four countries are heard from most: Hong Kong, Russia, Poland and the United States of America.

Hong Kong’s protesters have five demands: removal of the legal definition of “rioter”, amnesty for arrested protesters, an independent inquiry into police brutality, appropriate democratic representation and withdrawal of the extradition bill. These protests themselves highlighted the need for these changes. Dozens of protesters are already charged as “rioters”, defined as “three or more people” being “disorderly, intimidating, insulting or provocative” (Cap. 245 Public Order Ordinance), carrying a prison sentence of up to 10 years. Similarly, concerns over police brutality are well-founded, as graphic pictures circulating online appear to show. Allegations of sexual assault on detainees are also raised, including at least one non-consensual pregnancy conceived under detention. Not only are the people of Hong Kong not free to protest, but they are also unsafe.

In early 2021, Russian people protested. This was in support of Alexei Navalny, following the alleged poisoning of him in August 2020, the release of his viral, anti-Putin video “Putin's palace. History of world's largest bribe” and his subsequent arrest. A key issue arose — arrests. As Russian protests paradoxically require government approval, Russian police 'lawfully' arrested over 10,000 protesters in three days. Thus, in the ostensibly democratic Russia, there is no true freedom to protest and to use one’s democratic voice.

Even closer to home is Poland, with the widespread protests against the PiS (the dominant Polish 'law and justice' party) tightening abortion laws, as well as over LGBT+ discrimination. The latter protests have showed the most disturbing scenes. Violent hate crimes have been committed on these protesters both from the police and the public. This violence is only bolstered by the government’s anti-LGBT+ actions, such as the erection of ‘LGBT-free zones’ and declaring queerness as an ideology over an identity. These scenes are particularly alarming due to their targeted removal of free, safe protesting for a minority group, whereas the aforementioned countries were general in their oppression.

As a final thought, the opposite side of the spectrum should be discussed — the seige on the US Capitol. Here, I believe, the freedom to have a democratic voice usurped the freedom from this voice suppressing others’ voices. It seems the answer is not in total freedom to protest, but in balance. If we can learn from this and vote, protest and teach accordingly, we can stop ourselves from sliding into a paradoxical undemocratic democracy.

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