A world of voices, some freer than others

International students, faculty compare citizens’ freedom around the world

International students, faculty compare citizens’ freedom around the world

When Yana Omelianenko moved to the U.S. from Khabarovsk, Russia, she was surprised by how much emotion American citizens put into politics. When someone’s favorite candidate loses the nomination, he or she feels a personal sadness. Omelianenko, a teaching assistant at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said this is different from how it is in Russia.

“Russians don’t take politics to heart or let them hurt them,” she said. “I don’t know Putin personally, how can I say I hate him?”

American-born U.S. citizens may have grown accustomed to the freedoms the First Amendment provides.

However, members of the UNL community such as Omelianenko have not always lived here or always had these rights explicitly written in his or her country’s constitution.

Countries with higher censorship of media and everyday citizens often have complete governmental control over the media and do not allow citizens to speak badly of the country or the leaders in power.

“People are able to protest in front of the capitol, even,” Omelianenko said. “Meanwhile, blow horns are prohibited in Russia.”

Yana Omelianenko is a Fulbright Scholar from Russia currently serving as a Teaching Assistant for Russian-language classes.

According to Freedom House, an organization that watches and keeps track of the degrees of democracy in the world, the Russian constitution does provide for free speech; however, “vague laws on extremism grant the authorities great discretion to crack down on any speech, organization, or activity that lacks official support.”

Omelianenko understood this and explained that one person can stand out on the street with a poster, but when more people become involved, they need to get permission from the authorities.

“The permission ends up delayed or postponed,” Omelianenko said. “It happened a lot with the LGBT community.”

The LGBT rights movement in Russia appears to be very far behind the U.S. in this way, according to Omelianenko. People who do not identify as straight are told they are allowed to “exist at home,” Omelianenko said.

Other protests that get shut down are often about wanting to see a change in how the current government is handling things.

This is also the case in Hong Kong, where freshman nutrition and health sciences major Sau Chung Cristal Kwan is from originally.

Kwan has been in the States since high school. She lived in California for high school and moved to Nebraska for college.

Kwan’s mother told her in elementary school she would emigrate from Hong Kong in order to attend high school in the U.S.

While Kwan is comfortable speaking English, she said she “will never forget Chinese.”

She also remembers the protests in Hong Kong were about China.

Hong Kong, while nestled inside continental China, has its own set of laws and regulations. Unlike the rest of mainland China, “Hong Kong has a limited democracy,” as explained by Investopedia, a financial education website interested in Hong Kong as a market and a nation.

Investopedia continues by explaining that the two use different currencies and operate almost separately. However, China controls Hong Kong’s military and often “the mainland Chinese government does assert itself in local Hong Kong politics.”

This assertion and the differing governmental systems lead people from Hong Kong to protest. This is legal in Hong Kong but censored in mainland China.

Kwan recalled that while the Chinese government could not stop the protests, Chinese authorities would tell the high-level staff in Hong Kong to shut them down.

According to Freedom House, the Chinese constitution “guarantees the right to freedom of assembly, but Article 51 states its exercise ‘may not infringe upon the interests of the state.’”

This governmental opposition as a free speech issue is also common in Malaysia, where senior biology major Alexander Lai is from.

Lai came to the United States, and Lincoln specifically, after being recommended by a friend who had done so before him. He was offered a study program and has studied at UNL since his freshman year. He has been here five years now.

While he described Lincoln as “more laid-back,” he also said he sees a difference between the U.S. and Malaysia politically.

The larger protests in Malaysia were about having more transparent elections, Lai said.

Over the past few years, Malaysians have protested corruption as well. This erupted after “Malaysian investigators had found nearly US $700 million (S$988 million) was deposited into [the prime minister’s] personal bank accounts,” The Strait Times said.

While the government tried to limit these protests, Lai also said the government has yet to become involved in censoring social media.

“It’s very open, surprisingly, there are few things on the Internet that are censored,” he said. “The presence is so low that Facebook is where people will organize rallies.”

This is something Omelianenko, Kwan and Lai all had in common. Russia, Malaysia and Hong Kong all allow social media to be used openly.

“Social media is allowed,” Omelianenko said. “People try to protect their own reputation. Meeting to talk with someone is the best because online you can never know who will see it.”

While all three also agreed that they enjoy having free speech, Lai and Omelianenko believe there could be some changes to the freedoms granted in the U.S.

“Hate speech is definitely not something that should be covered by the First Amendment,” Lai said. “There should be reasonable limits that don’t harm other people.”

The Supreme Court has ruled that while hate speech is protected, some things are not. For example, fighting words are not protected. To determine if speech qualify as fighting words, the speech is examined for whether it was said in an attempt to incite violence.

Libel and slander are also not protected under the First Amendment. While it is more difficult to win a libel case for public figures, the everyday person does not have the right to lie in an attempt to ruin another’s reputation.

The vast majority of speech is protected, however.

The First Amendment also allows a free press. Recently, this has created controversy over which organizations post factual news and which do not.

According to Omelianenko, the press needs to have its facts backed up and people need to be educated about where they are getting their information.

Omelianenko said there are two main news stations in Russia, one is regulated by the government while the other is freer. She said that, at times, the news is told two completely different ways.

However, she does not think the media is only a problem in Russia.

“I don’t believe in accurate media in any country,” she said. “They are not lying, they just are not telling the truth. Media may not be directly offensive, but a reader could take it negatively.”

While opinions are not censored in America simply because they are not universally agreed upon, it is important for media outlets to fact check and do its best to write without biases.

Omelianenko said she is a fan of her freedom in America to be herself and speak about what she desires.

In Russia, she said she felt “that as a representative of the LGBT community, [she] is not allowed to speak.”

“There is always a shade of fear for my family and me that being out will make me/them an outcast or make the whole world a hell,” she said in an email.

Omelianenko is openly gay in the U.S. but does not speak about it in Russia because she does not know the consequences. Some of her friends came out of the closet and were “severely beaten, or arrested for peaceful prides or a LGBT–support group gathering.”

“I feel that I am censored as I cannot live openly and freely with my significant other,” she said.

Omelianenko will go back to Russia after the school year and readjust to a different way of living.

Kwan and Lai plan on staying in the States after their graduations.