| The State Duma has given initial approval to a presidential
draft law that makes amendments to legislation governing the activity
of media outlets during election campaigns. The deputies, however,
have ignored the concerns expressed by the media over the draft
On Friday the State Duma passed in the first reading a presidential
package of draft laws amending four federal laws as part of reforms
of the electoral system. The draft on amendments to several legislative
acts related to the adoption of the federal law on general guarantees
of electoral rights and the right to referendum was backed by
245 deputies, enough for the draft to clear the first hurdle:
there were two abstentions.
The liberal Union of Righ-Wing Forces, Yabloko as well as the
Communists voted against the bill, saying that the proposed amendments
amounted to a restriction of press freedom.
The controversial draft law introduces amendments to the laws
on the mass media, on charitable activities, as well as to the
Criminal Code and the Administrative Code. Presenting the bill
to the house on Friday, the Chairman of the Central Election Commission
Alexander Veshnyakov said it was aimed at minimizing the use of
dirty campaigning techniques during election campaigns.
Amending the bill on the mass media, Veshnyakov said, ''would
prevent the emergence of TV-killers after the pattern of 1999'',
obviously alluding to the TV-host Sergei Dorenko, whose extraordinary
journalistic and presentation skills were used to undermine the
popularity of Yuri Luzhkov, whose bloc, Fatherland-All Russia,
posed a serious threat to the nascent pro-Kremlin Unity Party
in the December 1999 Duma election campaign.
The senior electoral official refuted claims by some media observers
that the proposed amendments amounted to a new attack on the freedom
of speech and reiterated his own statement, made at the Media
on the Eve of Election conference four days earlier: ''This is
not a blow to the freedom of speech, but a blow to the freedom
of lies, black PR and black cash.''
The outcome of the vote was pre-determined when Unity deputy
Kovalenko said that his faction had no objections to the draft.
The critical remarks came from the deputies who do not belong
to the pro-Kremlin centrist bloc. For instance, the Communist
Party's Viktor Ilyukhin noted that the draft focused on violations
of electoral law by journalists and did not make any mention of
violations committed by election officials. Ilyukhin added that
the draft sets no penalty for the use of the so-called ''administrative
resource'' when candidates exploit their official position to
influence voting results and secure their victory.
The deputy complained that so far the CEC had failed to respond
to active propaganda by presidents and governors during election
campaigns. Veshnyakov retorted that under the new law on elections
an incumbent who joins the race would have to take leave pending
the election campaign.
The liberal Union of Righ-Wing Forces (SPS) and Yabloko sided
with the Communists in their rejection of the draft. SPS's Alexander
Barannikov blasted the provision introducing criminal responsibility
for candidates and their sponsors for using money from outside
their election funds when campaigning. Barannikov assumes that
a sponsor cannot possibly know if the candidate's election fund
has been exceeded.
Another SPS deputy, Boris Nadezhdin, noted that altogether, there
are only three forms of election resources: an administrative
resource, a financial resource and a media resource. The deputy
considers it strange that while abusing the administrative resource
is punishable with an absurdly low fine of 5,000 roubles, abusing
financial resources can be punished with up to four years in prison.
Ivanenko noted that nobody suspended the broadcasts of the
state-dominated Channel One and state-owned Rossia TV, while those
networks actively back the state authorities. Defining the amendments,
Ivanenko stated that their adoption amounted to an attempt to
extinguish fire with oil. His colleague, Sergei
Mitrokhin, added that the tragedy of the draft law was not
that it was lenient or tough, but that it was selective.
Editors from media outlets have drawn attention, first and foremost,
to the adoption of the amendments despite President Putin's earlier
promise not to introduce any laws concerning media activities
without first consulting the Media Industrial Committee.
In particular, this opinion was expressed at the aforementioned
conference by one of the committee members, Editor-in-Chief of
Ekho Moskvy radio station Alexei Venediktov. Incidentally, many
journalists received the text of the presidential amendments at
the conference held only four days before the Duma held the first
reading of the draft.
The most controversial provision of the draft is the provision
allowing the CEC to demand that the Press Ministry suspend a media
outlet-s operations pending the election campaign. In line with
the draft, such sanctions can be imposed on a media outlet if
it violates electoral regulation more than twice during a single campaign. Journalists have denounced the
proposed mechanism as 'anti-democratic', saying that only a court
of law has the power to decide whether the law was violated or
not. The CEC officials claim that the provision is intended to
counter the use of dirty PR stunts.
So far the draft law has received only preliminary approval and
still has a long way to go before it is signed into law by the
president. However, it cannot be ruled out that the head of state
might veto the bill as he did earlier with the amendments to the
laws on countering terrorism and on mass media in the context
of media coverage of terror attacks and counter-terrorist operations.
Then the media community, casting aside its internal dissent,
united in dissuading the president from signing the draft into
law, and succeeded.
of Speech and Media Law in Russia
State Duma elections