| On October 17th 1905 Tsar Nikolas II signed a manifesto
to strengthen state order. The manifesto proclaimed civil freedoms (personal
immunity, freedom of speech, associations and assemblies) and the convocation
of the State Duma. A great deal has happened since. Russia has survived
two revolutions (in February and in October 1917), two wars (the civil
war and the Great Patriotic War), Khruschev's thaw, Brezhnev's big sleep,
Gorbachev's perestroika, the collapse of the Soviet Union, Yegor Gaidar's
market economy and the financial default in 1998.
The aforementioned have become historic eras in Russia. You can interpret
them differently, but you cannot forget them. Otherwise history might
repeat itself. The founder of scientific socialism used to say: "History
repeats itself twice: first as a tragedy, and then as farce." For
the sixth or 56th time, history repeats itself as unbelievable marasm.
This can be applied to the freedoms granted by Nikolas II. Ninety-eight
years later, a group of deputies applied to the Constitutional Court to
determine if freedom of speech exits in Russia.
Four inquiries have been submitted to the Russian Constitutional Court
this year. The claimants dispute four paragraphs of point two of article
48 of the Law "About Basic Guarantees." These paragraphs define
pre-election agitation as follows: "the distribution of information
about candidates," "the distribution of information about candidate's
activities unrelated to his professional activities," "activities
facilitating the creation of a positive or a negative attitude of the
electorate to a candidate, an association or a bloc," "other
activities to encourage the electorate to vote for or against candidates."
The claimants dispute several other paragraphs of the law.
The inquiries have been actively discussed in the media, but nobody
knew when they would be discussed - before or after the elections? There
was a hope that the Constitutional Court would consider them as soon as
possible, but the Central Electoral Committee does not support this position.
Alexander Veshnyakov, the committee's head, attempted to pressurise the
court. After learning about the inquiries, the official said that the
Constitutional Court would not be considering them during the election
At present, the law views any newspaper article as political agitation,
if an article discusses politicians' ratings, for instance. Chapter VII
of the law says that only registered candidates or groups may agitate
in the mass media. Consequently any television channel or any newspaper
could be accused of violating the law if they retell or reprint a press
release from the central Electoral Committee.
Duma deputies have expressed a number of opinions on the electoral law.
Boris Nadezhdin from the Union of Right-Wing Forces stated that the
Inquiries submitted to the Constitutional Court were not part of the pre-election
campaign. The deputy said that "it concerned all the elections that
constantly take place in the country constantly." According to Nadezhdin,
the aforementioned paragraphs of Article 48 "imply optional interpretation
Nadezhdin's colleague from the faction, Alexander Kotyusov, said that
there were many ridiculous and sad examples to show how the article is
being used in real life. The regional electoral committee in the city
of Tula, for instance, verbally warned the newspaper Molodoy Kommunist
for calling State Duma deputies Alexander Korzhakov and Elena Drapeko
"general" and "actress" respectively (they are a general
and actress, but these words are considered subtle agitation). A Kaliningrad-based
newspaper was warned for the following phrase: "Alexei Yushenkov,
the son of the assassinated State Duma deputy Sergey Yushenkov."
Attorney Pavel Astakhov who defends the interests of one of the authors
of the inquires stated: "The elections conducted with a total ban
on any information, except for information distributed by candidates,
cannot be considered as democratic elections."
Constitutional Court's chairman Valeri Zorkin stated that the decision
of the court would consider all these wordings. "The most we can
do is explain the law. If the Constitutional Court says that the Law "About
Mass Media" is more important for journalists than the Law "About
Basic Guarantees" from the point of view of the Constitution, we
will be satisfied. In this case, journalists will be given an opportunity
to analyze events normally and will not be afraid of being called to account."
State Duma elections 2003
Freedom of Speech and
Media Law in Russia