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Moskovsky Komsomolets, April 25, 2003

Veshnyakov: Freedom of Speech in a Labyrinth

Interview with Chairman of the Central Electoral Commission Alexander Veshnyakov
By Anna Feofilaktova

Russia's journalists are in a panic: fairly soon, the sight of newspapers or televisions being shut down could become commonplace. The Central Electoral Commission (CEC), the Media Ministry and finally the courts would merely have to decide whether journalists were not objective in their coverage of a certain presidential or parliamentary candidate or were praising another candidate too much. Then the media outlet involved would be suspended until the end of the election campaign.

This cheerful prospect dawned when the Duma passed amendments to the law on basic guarantees of electoral rights. For comments, we approached CEC chief Alexander Albertovich Veshnyakov.

Question: Just out of curiosity - if these legislative innovations had been in place during the 1999 elections, would you have managed to suspend the ORT network for the way Sergei Dorenko acted as "TV assassin", going after certain candidates?

Veshnyakov: Of course - but not the whole network, just Dorenko's program. In such cases, the law does not stipulate shutting down a TV channel entirely; only the program that is breaking the law.

Question: So a TV channel can get away with suspending broadcasts of one program. Then why should entire newspapers be held accountable for the actions of print media journalists?

Veshnyakov: Because we can't just stop a column written by a particular journalist. Often journalists write for different sections of a paper under different guises. Here we're talking about a scale of penalties. For a first offence, the penalty is a fine; for a second offence, it's likely to be another fine plus a warning. I'm sure that the Media Ministry wouldn't ask the courts to shut down a media outlet immediately. Neither does the CEC have such a goal. But if there is a third offence, that means it's a matter of editorial policy, and the whole editorial team should be held accountable.

Question: All right - let's look at some specific situations. Quoting from the text of the legislation: "News coverage should not violate the principle of equality between candidates... Reports on campaign events should be delivered purely as information, without any comment. No particular candidate should be given preference." So if a newspaper gives one presidential candidate ten lines - Putin, for example - does that mean each of his rivals should be accorded the same amount of column space?

Veshnyakov: No, of course not. The campaigns of all politicians cannot be identical. One candidate's campaign may be very vigorous, while another candidate could be hard to locate even during the election. Actually, these standards have a different objective entirely. Let me give you an example: two presidential candidates visit the same city. They're well-known candidates backed by millions of voters. They both hold rallies and meet with voters; each rally is attended by a thousand people. Then a national television network keeps showing one of those candidates all day in all its news broadcasts; while the other candidate might as well not exist. Is that equality? Well, in those circumstances, that TV network would be considered to be breaking the law. Note that nobody, including the CEC, is proposing penalties for incautious words used by journalists may use in the heat of the moment. We're talking about deliberate, systematic activity aimed at discrediting one candidate and extolling another.

Question: Who will be monitoring the media for violations of the law?

Veshnyakov: First of all, your competitors. They can direct complaints to electoral commissions. The CEC will set up a special group including CEC members, CEC staff who deal with these issues, representatives from the Union of Russian Journalists, and Media-Soyuz experts in news editorial policy. This group will conduct preliminary investigations of complaints and provide an expert assessment as to whether the law was broken. Only then will a case be examined at a CEC meeting, and subsequently in court. Note: it will be a group decision.

Question: What if no complaints come in?

Veshnyakov: We monitor the media, and if we see obvious evidence of deliberate breaches of the law in edition after edition or broadcast after broadcast, we will intervene. But once again we will seek the aid of experts and the matter will be decided through the courts.

Question: And another detail - where do you draw the line between straight news reporting and commentary?

Veshnyakov: One must aim to be objective. This requires ethical standards for professional behaviour as journalists. After all, it's always obvious when materials are presented in a way that favours one candidate and discredits another.

Question: That could be disputed. For example, during the gubernatorial campaign in Taimyr, a local television channel that covered a candidate's meeting with voters received a warning for using the following words: "The hall was so crowded that an apple couldn't hit the floor." The electoral commission considered this to be "excessively positive about the candidate".

Veshnyakov: If that was indeed the case, then in my view some particular officials in that electoral commission went too far. We don't permit such situations at the CEC. But sometimes the levels of training and skills at regional electoral commissions differ. We will work with them and distribute explanatory materials, including guidelines and commentary to the law on basic guarantees of electoral rights. This will enable us to applya consistent policy nationwide. What's more, an electoral commission cannot impose penalties on journalists on its own; that can only be done by a court or the Media Ministry - the federal Media Ministry, not its regional branches. I would like to note that while a case is still going through the legal process, a media outlet would continue to operate.

Question: According to the law on basic guarantees of electoral rights, reliable information which is detrimental to a candidate should not be published without giving that candidate some space, free of charge, for a denial. But why should we do this automatically during a campaign, without a court decision?

Veshnyakov: Let me explain the origins of that provision . Like the others, it is based on actual experience. In 1999, just before the election, some extremely negative information was published about one candidate - Grigory Yavlinsky. It was done at the very last moment, so there was no time to take legal action. So this provision was included to protect candidates from attempts by their opponents to discredit them. Why haven't the media been giving the other side a chance to speak in its defense during elections? Voters need to hear both sides of a story.

Question: It seems odd. For example, let's say we find out that one candidate smoked marijuana in his youth. We report this information and he comes out with a denial, saying he has never smoked marijuana. And we're supposed to print that?

Veshnyakov: Yes, you must. I agree - some legal standards are not perfect, just as our lives are imperfect in many ways. By the way, we have studied the legislation of other countries - and nowhere have these problems been fully resolved. But no one aims to regulate absolutely everything, right down to trivial details; that would be a utopian task.

Question: But what if we don't want to publish a denial, since we're convinced that our information is correct?

Veshnyakov: Then the matter could be decided through the courts.

Question: So perhaps that point in the law could have been better expressed?

Veshnyakov: Possibly. It probably isn't perfect, but neither should we take things to the level of absurdity.

Question: In recent weeks, you have started saying that you are prepared to cooperate with the media and discuss certain especially controversial points in the new law.

Veshnyakov: Not only in recent weeks - I've been saying that right from the start. It's simply that no one wanted to listen to me then; they all claimed this was a blow against freedom of speech. And I answered that it was a blow against freedom to lie and use dishonest media tactics, rather than freedom of speech. So we exchanged blows, so to speak and then started a constructive discussion, actually listening to each other.


See also:

Freedom of Speech and Media Law in Russia

State Duma elections 2003

Presidential Elections 2004

Moskovsky Komsomolets, April 25, 2003

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