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Vremya MN, June 19, 2003

Silence of the Lambs
Media told to shut up for the duration of election campaigns. Coverage of elections becomes a dangerous venture

By Konstantin Katanjan

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.


See also:

Freedom of Speech and Media Law in Russia

State Duma Elections 2003

Vremya MN, June 19, 2003

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