Will it be a "piece of cake" to shut down any media
According to new amendments to the law "On the Mass Media",
introduced by the
President and passed by the Duma in the first reading, the operation
of a media outlet can be suspended - until the end of an election
Interestingly enough, the parties opposed to the amendments are
the parties which cannot count on the support of state- controlled
media or the use of administrative resources: the Union of Right-Wing
Forces (SPS), YABLOKO, and the Communist Party of the Russian Federation.
Members of the pro-governmental party, United Russia, voted for
the draft law.
The Chairman of the Central Electoral Commission Alexander Veshnyakov
has assured the public that press editors simply misunderstood him
- the new draft law cannot be called "draconian."
Veshnyakov believes that if it does strike a blow at anything, the
target is not freedom of speech, but "freedom to lie, to defame,
and use unaccounted funds." Appeals from 191 Russian regional
outlets not to pass these amendments have not convinced Veshnyakov.
An analysis of the amendments by experts from the UNESCO copyright
department confirms that there is reason for alarm. First, a media
outlet can be suspended even if only one of its journalists or editors
breaks campaign coverage regulations. Second, it is assumed from
the text that penalties can also be applied for "incorrect
information" about the progress of an election campaign, not
only for violation of campaign advertising rules. It is unclear
how this "incorrectness" will be interpreted... Finally,
television and radio channels have been the luckiest: their operation
can be suspended for several pre-election months without even a
court decision, as with newspapers,
only requiring an order from the "registering institution,"
i.e. the Media Ministry.
It is not clear what will happen to a newspaper that is not published
for even a few weeks or a TV channel suspended even for a couple
of days. What penalties would they have to pay for unfulfilled advertising
contracts (including political and legitimate advertising)? And
can they survive after all this?
Sure, one may say: don't break the rules, and everything will be
okay. Yet our laws are written to permit two or three possible interpretation
of their meaning. Meanwhile, unfortunately, one cannot rely on the
Russian courts as the most humane and independent courts in the
The hope remains that the vaguest and most dangerous articles of
the law on the media will be made more specific and amended by the
second reading. But this hope is weak, to tell the truth.
This is what journalists and Duma members said about the legislative
Victor Loshak, Editor-in-Chief of the Moskovskiye Novosti
newspaper: I believe that these amendments are extremely dangerous,
not only for the media, but also for the state of democracy in
our society. In practice these amendments can lead to the closure
of media and TV and radio companies which are not controlled by
the authorities. This is particularly dangerous in the provinces,
where the power of regional leaders is so vast that Moscow will
never notice if a newspaper gets shut down. The amendments deprive
voters of access to objective information about candidates, electoral
blocs, or violations by state officials in the preparation and
holding of elections.
On the whole, this is a blow to the Constitution that guarantees
freedom of information for Russian citizens. As an editor-in-chief
and Industrial Committee member, I will initiate legal action by
the Industrial Committee, together with my colleagues, as these
amendments are legally sloppy.
Deputy Head of the YABLOKO faction: We are being invited to
extinguish fires with kerosene - since the main election problem
these days is abuse of power, and these amendments exacerbate
it. The amendments that give executive branch institutions the
ability to revoke electronic media licenses are especially disturbing.
They would actually be performing a court's functions by doing
Andrei Vulf, the SPS faction: Unfortunately, the draft
law has no clear specification of the period when a media outlet
can be suspended: it says until the end of an election campaign,
and until the end of a repeat election, if there is a repeat election.
But there are always elections underway somewhere in Russia; the
terms of campaigns do not coincide. This means theoretically that
any national media outlet that violated the rules of campaign
coverage somewhere in one region could be suspended for the duration
of the federal presidential or parliamentary campaign as well...
deputy of the YABLOKO faction: The tragedy of our laws is
not that they are mild or harsh, but that they are applied selectively.
The same electoral commissions and the same courts find small
faults with some candidates, but overlook big faults with others...
The amendments in question turn an election campaign into a grim
period for the media, and they will fear elections like fire from
now on, as they can be "hunted" during this period.
Not all of them, but only those that do not suit the regime or
the owners of powerful financial resources.
Andrei Vasiliyev, Director General of the Kommersant Publishing
House: The borderline between news coverage and campaign advertising
is very vague in these amendments. It transpires that the law
would ban campaign advertising 30 days before voting day, which
actually means banning news coverage as well in this case. That
is, to give an honest account of a candidate we should accept
money from him, record this money receipt, and report about him
fulfilling the law on campaign advertising. But if we want to
write without taking money, we are asking for trouble with violating
the law. No doubt, these amendments contradict that part of the
Constitution that uarantees freedom of access to information.
So far, I cannot clearly imagine how my newspaper will function
during the election campaign. I think that in each particular case
we will make an individual decision on how to act. Yet it cannot
be ruled out that we will have to break some regulations as well.
If court sanctions are applied against us, we will contest them
An ideal outcome of this situation might be the existence of a media
community; then it would be possible to make an arrangement and
write nothing at all about elections or show nothing on television.
Then Duma candidates would very quickly revise everything and cancel
their amendments. Unfortunately, this is impossible, as even the
major media would not be able to achieve an agreement on such a
boycott. Yet this would be a very effective method.
of Speech and Media Law in Russia