| In all 358 Duma members voted yesterday in favour of the
"president's amendments" to the law on the media; amendments
actually drafted by the Central Electoral Commission.
In other words, the majority of the lower house voted to remove citizens
of Russia and the media from the election process. No more free and democratic
elections in Russia. The legislators abolished our constitutional right
to comment on the policy programmes of parties and candidates, to make
predictions regarding the outcome of elections, or to warn voters about
the possible consequences of a victory for any political force.
All print publications with such comments or predictions will be viewed
as campaign advertising now; and campaign advertising is the sole prerogative
of officially-registered candidates, parties, and blocs. Journalists and
ordinary citizens may no longer publicly state their opinion of candidates.
Moreover, penalties can be imposed on any newspaper, magazine, TV programme
or radio broadcaster for statements "aiming to persuade or persuading
the electorate to vote for or against particular candidates or party lists."
This amounts to more than a ban on direct campaign advertising. Bullying
its way into freedom of speech and thought, the law enables state officials
to decide whether a journalist or the author of a letter to a newspaper
or magazine connived to persuade readers to change their political position
on the eve of the election. If the decision is that he did, the newspaper
will be punished. Two such violations in a single campaign - and the court
may rule to suspend the newspaper in question until the end of voting
in the campaign or referendum. This is the essence of the amendment to
the law on the media adopted yesterday in the third reading. As elections
always happen somewhere in Russia - at the federal or regional level -
it is quite possible to keep an inconvenient newspaper under pressure
permanently, shutting it down for a month or two several times a year.
Heads of state-controlled newspapers and TV channels may find themselves
outlawed. Several violations in a row may have them disqualified for between
two and three years. And violations can be easily found, given some ingenuity,
even when the publication in question doesn't have anything to do with
the election. Write an article about a record crop - and it may be taken
as campaign advertising for the Agrarian Party. Mention low salaries -
and it may be viewed as campaign advertising for the Communist Party.
Mention wage arrears - and it may be taken as campaign advertising against
United Russia, with its promise to keep an eye on timely payments. Actually,
any apple juice commercial can now be viewed as pro-Yabloko campaign advertising
(Ed. "Yabloko" means "apple" in Russian).
At the same time, the Duma voted to toughen criminal and administrative
penalties for "dangerous actions encroaching on citizens' election
rights." These days the term "dangerous deeds" applies
most to the activities of the actual legislators. They have turned our
rights into fiction. If the Federation Council supports these amendments
now, the citizens of Russia will only be able to take legislators to court
- or else vote them out of office this autumn.
of Speech and Media Law in Russia
State Duma Elections 2003