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The Moscow Times, October 31, 2003

Court Frees Up Election Coverage

By Caroline McGregor

The Constitutional Court on Thursday ruled as unconstitutional one part of the law that restricts media coverage of election campaigns, and in doing so, gave journalists more room to do their jobs, critics of the law said.

The ruling, read by Court Chairman Valery Zorkin, cancels an umbrella clause in the law on guarantees of voters' rights, which defined campaigning so broadly that reporting information on a candidate could be construed as a violation if it was capable of swaying voters.

Previously, any detail characterizing a politician could be seen as helping or hurting a politician's image.

Kaliningrad journalist Konstantin Rozhkov said his newspaper was fined 2,000 rubles ($65) and ultimately closed by the authorities for having called a general a general, an artist an artist and the son of a murdered deputy, the son of a murdered deputy. "That was the law," he said in an NTV interview.

But that no longer is true.

Too much of what is simply information could be seen as campaign material, Zorkin told reporters gathered in his chambers after the decision. Now only those media reports that are expressly designed to affect voters' choices should be taken as inappropriate.

The seventh sub-clause, "zh," of article 42, clause 2, defines as pre-election campaigning "any action, inducing or trying to induce voters to vote for candidates, lists of candidates, or against [them]."

This is "incompatible with judicial equality, limits the freedom of public information and the rights of citizens to receive information they vote as they wish in the elections," the court wrote.

State Duma deputies and journalists petitioned the court to overturn a series of clauses in the voters' rights law in September, arguing that the legislation was limiting their ability to fulfill their professional duties. The voters' rights law was passed in June 2002, but only came under scrutiny as the election season neared. Amendments to the media law were passed this summer, also restricting the campaign season playing field.

Apprehension over how courts could interpret the legislation led many journalists to shy away from political coverage and politicians to complain of an information vacuum barring them from getting their message out.

The six sub-clauses previous to the one canceled give specific definitions of campaigning, and they stay on the books.

"At least [now] it's a closed list," said Andrei Richter, the director of the Moscow Media Law and Policy Center. It was an open list until today. By deleting the blanket term, they made the list a bit clearer."

The overturned clause gave the Central Elections Commission and judges too much room for subjective interpretation when deciding whether a journalist's reporting was appropriate or not, he added.

Alexander Veshnyakov, chairman of the commission, which monitors press coverage of the campaigns, reminded the press Thursday that election season events must be reported as fact, distinct from any commentary and with equal focus on all candidates and parties.

If a media outlet is found to be in violation, after initial fines and warnings, the commission can turn to the Press Ministry to take the case to court.

Alexei Simonov of the Glasnost Foundation said he, too, was pleased with the decision, but the damage had already been done. "The mechanism of fear and pressure on journalists has already been let loose. So on the surface, it changes things, but in reality, it doesn't."

But Ekho Moskvy's Alexei Venediktov said, "We got what we wanted." That, he said, was the right to express opinions, as long as they are not designed specifically to influence voters on behalf of one party or another.

Commentary is acceptable if it is not blurred with news reports, or, in other words, it should be packaged separately from "information blocks," Zorkin said.

Also by law, every candidate and party has the right to equal coverage. For example, if three parties hold an event on the same day, a publication must cover all three or none. Asked how to divide a one-minute roundup of top news among a dozen candidates, Zorkin warned against taking a general principle "to an absurd degree."

Konstantin Katanyan, a commentator for Vremya MN, whose appeal was one of the four considered, said the court "had explained to all ... not so conscientious bureaucrats that there's no point in getting a pencil to count the number of letters written about one or another candidate."

Representatives of the Union of Right Forces, Yabloko and the Communist Party, which initiated the appeal to the court, said they were pleased with the decision Thursday. United Russia politicians were criticized for refusing to support the appeal against restrictions, which are seen as beneficial to them.

The decision went into effect Thursday. A spokeswoman for the court said the court's decision would be published in Rossiiskaya Gazeta within two weeks.

In many ways, the true test of how the law will influence campaigning will come only after Nov. 7, when the campaign season officially begins.

Meanwhile, Rozhkov, the Kaliningrad journalist, said he planned to appeal to the European Court in hopes of winning even broader reporting freedom.


See also:

the original at

Freedom of Speech and Media Law in Russia

State Duma elections 2003

The Moscow Times, October 31, 2003

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