| MOSCOW - It was nothing unusual when Andrei Kolesnikov,
a leading newspaper
columnist, was invited last week to appear on Svoboda Slova, one of Russian
TV's hottest public-affairs talk shows. But Mr. Kolesnikov says he was
astonished when asked to come a day early - because the show, whose name
means "Freedom of the Word," is known for its live cut-and-thrust
"The host apologized to me and said he's not happy about this at
Kolesnikov. "But all the main talk shows have switched to being
pre-recorded recently, because they're scared" by a new election
could shut them down for remarks that authorities deem improper.
It smacks strongly of Soviet times - except that today's censors are
Communist Party hacks planted in editorial offices, but the managers of
media outlets themselves.
Ostensibly, the law is aimed at curbing the "black PR," or
coverage that marked previous Russian elections.
But its effect is to ban virtually all independent political commentary,
analysis, or forecasting during the parliamentary election campaign that
began last week and runs until Dec. 7.
"The media are being blocked from playing their role as a public
mechanism," says Oleg Panfilov, head of the Center for Journalism
Extreme Situations, an independent press watchdog. "If there is no
oversight, how can we be sure criminals won't get elected?"
The law forbids - but defines vaguely - any sort of electoral "advocacy,"
and would seem to reduce reporters to little more than stenographers.
After two violations, an offending newspaper, radio, or TV station can
shut down. With the campaign season barely begun, the Central Election
Commission, in charge of enforcing the law, has already issued a warning
Novaya Gazeta, a newspaper known for its investigative reporting.
Sergei Bolshakov, a Central Election Commission official and one of
law's authors, offered guidance to journalists in a recent newspaper
interview through the following example: Suppose there is a candidate
promises free apartments to voters if he or she is elected. Journalists
report that fact, he said, but must refrain from any commentary about
candidate or his track record, even if he had pledged free apartments
previous election but never delivered - "because that is not information,
it is your analysis and is not appropriate as information," Mr. Bolshakov
Moreover, Bolshakov warned, if a media outlet decides to cover any of
44 political parties running for parliament, it must give equal space
treatment to all of them. Critics say this requirement is surreal, since
only about four major parties have much chance of gaining the 5 percent
minimum vote needed to enter parliament.
The Kremlin-backed law is seen as particularly threatening to the Communist
Party and to Yabloko - both powerful opposition forces who would be equated
in the media with such tiny newcomers as the Conceptual Party of
"It's ridiculous and counterproductive to force journalists to
attention to every single candidate, the unknowns and famous leaders
alike," says Valery Fyodorov, director of the independent Center
Political Trends. "How are the media supposed to work at all under
The restrictions have some journalists scrambling for strategies to
continue doing their jobs. The staff at Nezavisimaya Gazeta, an opposition
newspaper owned by exiled oligarch Boris Berezovsky, briefly discussed
boycotting all election coverage in protest. "But we decided that
went on strike, it wouldn't be the Kremlin's problem - it would be our
problem," says Maxim Glikin, the paper's political-affairs editor.
have to work around the law, by writing indirectly about the elections.
Readers will know what we mean."
In Soviet times, newspaper readers were skilled at searching mezhdu
strokami, or between the lines, and journalists often used innocuous
metaphors or Aesopian language to get their critical messages across.
getting to be a bit like that again, but I'm not worried," says Mr.
"We shall have to weigh every word, like gold, and think carefully
how to deploy each idea. I believe my job is very serious, and very
From Petersburg to Persia
Vladimir Pribylovsky, head of the independent Panorama think tank in
Moscow, says he recently wrote a hard-hitting op-ed piece for a major
newspaper about the election campaign in St. Petersburg but simply changed
the name of the place he was talking about to "Persia." So far,
away with it.
Kolesnikov says he, too, will try to sidestep the law in his weekly
political-affairs column in the pro-government daily Izvestia. "I
write about the general state of the country, about subjects close to
elections, but not necessarily the elections themselves," he says.
Even critics admit the law will probably reduce the unethical practice
some Russian journalists hiring themselves out to the highest bidder at
election time. But they complain that the baby of press freedom is being
ejected along with the bath water of corruption.
"I am a political journalist, and this law violates my rights as
citizen," says Konstantin Katanyan, a columnist with the independent
Vremya-MN newspaper. "Our authorities are so afraid of (abuses) that
decided to prohibit everything." Mr. Katanyan has launched a challenge
the law through the constitutional court, claiming that it violates the
Russian Constitution's guarantee of freedom of speech.
Critics are also skeptical that the law, as administered by the
Kremlin-appointed election commission, will do anything to curb the
widespread use of official power and resources to promote pro-government
For example, in early September, President Vladimir Putin spoke out
endorse his chosen St. Petersburg gubernatorial candidate Valentina
Matveyenko during an official, televised meeting. Human rights groups
pointed out that Mr. Putin's remarks violated the election law's ban on
advocacy. When asked about it, the head of Russia's Central Election
Commission, Alexander Veshnyakov, simply blamed the media for broadcasting
the president's statement.
A docile press?
"All laws function in Russia in a kind of selective way, but some
to be written specially to permit bosses to use them in certain cases
not in others," says analyst Mr. Pribylovsky. "This law may
candidates from engaging in 'black PR' but it will not stop official
resources" from being mobilized to sway the voters.
Only a handful of print and Internet outlets, including Vremya-MN and
English-language Moscow Times, have made it clear they will attempt to
cover the elections professionally even if it incurs the wrath of
Noting the lack of a robust challenge, Alexander Konovalov, director
Institute for Strategic Assessments, an independent think tank in Moscow,
says: "A strong, combative media is crucial to a healthy society,
has shown itself to be weak and immature."
State Duma elections
Freedom of Speech
and Media Law in Russia