| 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
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.
of Speech and Media Law in Russia
State Duma elections