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Moskovsky Komsomolets, March 28, 2003

A Nightmare for Journalists

By Marina Ozerova and Liuba Shariy

Will it be a "piece of cake" to shut down any media outlet?

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 campaign.

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 media 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 world.

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 innovations.

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.

Sergei Ivanenko, 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 this.

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...

Sergey Mitrokhin, 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 with counterclaims.

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.


See also:

Freedom of Speech and Media Law in Russia

Moskovsky Komsomolets, March 28, 2003

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