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gazeta.ru, March 24, 2003

Duma to silence mass media before elections

Marina Sokolovskaya, Natalia Rostova

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 law.

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.

Yabloko's Sergei 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.


See also:

Freedom of Speech and Media Law in Russia

State Duma elections 2003

Presidential elections 2004

gazeta.ru, March 24, 2003

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