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Guest Post: Stand up for Pussy Riot, stand up for yourself

August 20th, 2012     by Guest Blogger     Comments

By Kasia Mychajlowycz

Last Friday, more than 100 people got together in Toronto to protest the guilty verdict and two-year sentence handed down to Russian punk rock performance artists Pussy Riot. There was punk music, chalk drawings, drumming, chanting, costumes—everything that makes a good, peaceful protest. And, of course, the media.

In a way, I am “the media.” I’ve recently finished my master’s degree in journalism, and I’m wrapping up an internship at a great magazine. But I was raised in activism, mostly of the “save the trees/support the arts” kind. Many journalists have said that you can’t be a journalist and an activist at the same time; it used to be convention that journalists didn’t even vote, so they could say they were “neutral.” Nowadays, journalism still clings to that idea even as we realize how impossible it is to be both human and neutral, especially if the job of journalism is to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the uncomfortable,” i.e. challenge the status quo, the way things are, and ask “but why?”

Kasia Mychajlowycz

But when I found out three members of Pussy Riot were jailed for months for SINGING A SONG in a Moscow church that spoke out against Russian President Vladimir Putin, I couldn’t stay silent. I blogged about it, and posted news articles on Twitter. When the verdict came down as guilty, I knew I had to take to the streets. I hastily made my first-ever balaclava with an old pyjama top (note from experience: watch your eyelashes when you cut out eye holes!), and left my magazine job early, with blessings from my colleagues.

I’ve been interviewed at protests before, since I was a teenager, but this time felt different. Firstly, my friends and I were dressed up like Pussy Riot members, and so people wanted to take our picture or video-tape us, which was fine. After all, I wanted to use my physical presence to let everyone know I believed in art as peaceful political protest, and the media amplifies that. But we were inundated. I did one TV interview, and then declined the second. The journalist was offended, and kept asking questions: “Who do you work for? Why don’t you want to be interviewed? What’s your name?” He was outright hostile; not at all the neutral observer he was meant to be. A photojournalist got upset when she asked my name and I declined, explaining to me, in the way a grown-up addresses a toddler, that her employer wouldn’t print a photo of an anonymous person. She also talked about her family, and trying to make a living. I still said no.

I sympathize with both these journalists; I know how news outlets are saving money by multiplying deadlines, spreading journalists too thin, and underpaying them for their work. But bullying protesters isn’t a journalist’s job, nor is it neutral. I live-tweeted the protest, posting photos of myself and friends for all to see, with my real name attached (and now I’m writing this blog post), so it’s hypocritical of me, maybe, not to let others attach my image to my name. But I’m just trying not to ruin a budding career; there’s a difference between reading that I was at a protest and having the first image in a Google search be me, fists up, with a sack on my head yelling “Free Pussy Riot!!” (Though I would be in good company. Excellent company.)

Kasia Mychajlowycz

Trying to find out how to have it both ways as a journalist and an activist has been trial-and-error, but I believe I’ve always acted in good faith and within my principles. The photojournalist suggested that I didn’t have to give her my real name; I declined, saying that because I’m a journalist, I don’t feel right lying to the media. I learned a valuable lesson in how not to cover a protest: even under deadline, don’t bully people into giving you the story. And as an activist, I learned to think beforehand about what my limits are when dealing with the media. In the end I navigated all the lines I could and couldn’t cross with one of my hard-and-fast rules: always do what you think is right, never do what others tell you is right. That way, no matter the consequences, you’re accountable to yourself.


Kasia is a journalist in Toronto, and soon New York City. You can follow her at @xokasia or see her work and blog at archivekasia.com.

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