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pravda.ru, October 17, 2003

Constitutional Court To Decide Freedom of Speech Issue
A group of deputies dispute the legal wording of pre-election propaganda

By Dmitry Chirkin

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 campaign.

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 and ambiguity."

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."


See also:

State Duma elections 2003

Freedom of Speech and Media Law in Russia

pravda.ru, October 17, 2003

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