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BBC Monitoring, August 8, 2003

Media law changes provoke concern about press freedom

Russia: Media law changes provoke concern about press freedom Recent amendments to the federal law on mass media that raise the penalties for violations of the federal election law have generated significant controversy and apprehension among Russian media and political elites.

The government has defended the changes as necessary to prevent campaign abuses and restore the public's trust in the electoral process. Many in the media and political establishment, however, view the changes as a rollback of a decade of media freedoms and a threat to free speech and free elections, particularly in the regions.

Some observers suggested the amendments may force the media into self-censorship to avoid running afoul of the election law's prohibitions on unlawful campaign agitation and propaganda. Others charged they may also deprive the public of the ability to make an informed decision on which candidate or party to support, thus casting doubt on the legitimacy of the elections themselves.

In June the Duma and Federation Council both overwhelmingly passed and President Putin signed into law amendments proposed earlier this year by the President and drafted by the Central Election Commission [TsIK]. These so-called presidential amendments are aimed at bringing four different legislative acts into conformity with the existing federal election law "On Basic Guarantees of Russian Citizens' Electoral Rights and Right to Participate in a Referendum" (Kommersant-Vlast, 17 February).

One of the legislative acts targeted by the amendments is the federal law on the mass media (Kommersant-Vlast, 23 June). Under the terms of the new legislation, any mass media organization committing more than two violations of the election law's rules on campaign coverage will be subject to closure for the remainder of the campaign period (Vedomosti, 19 June). The TsIK, upon determining that such violations have occurred, will be empowered to appeal to the Ministry for the Press, Radio and Television Broadcasting, and Mass Communications to shut down the offending organization until the election is over. Before such punitive action can occur, however, the courts must review the case and ensure that such action complies with the law (Moskovskiy Komsomolets, 19 June). Many in the media claim the rules can be used to preclude making election forecasts or reporting on topics such as candidates' personal and professional lives or even hobbies.

The election law itself stipulates that during the official campaign period, which begins 100 days before election day, all political party activities, as well as those of individual candidates, will be considered "pre-election campaigning". Any such campaigning, carried out through the media and aimed at influencing the preferences and actions of the voters, will be strictly governed by rules requiring payment from election funds and the provision of equal coverage for candidates and parties (Vremya MN, 10 July). The election law requires that any information on the campaign provided independently by the media be "objective, trustworthy, and maintain the equality of candidates" and not "bias the electorate towards one or other side" (10 July).

The Government defends media law changes as necessary, reasonable The government, led by TsIK Chairman Aleksandr Veshnyakov, has defended the new legislation, claiming it is needed to"protect the mass media from attempts to use them for dirty manipulations" (ITAR-TASS, 11 June).

Veshnyakov has tried to counter the "scare that roamed the pages of the massmedia" (ITAR-TASS, 11 June) concerning the amendments by stressing that the closure of media organizations would only occur in "the most extreme circumstances" (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, 26 June). "I do not think this standard [closure] will be applied on a mass scale. It will only have a preventive purpose," he explained. However, in those cases where the media are "behaving badly," Veshnyakov has made clear that the goal of the amendments is to give them "a cold shower" (Kommersant, 28 May). Veshnyakov claimed after a meeting with media lawyers that an understanding had been reached that the changes "will not lead to restrictions on freedom of speech and democracy during the conduct of the elections" (ITAR-TASS, 27 June).

TsIK member Sergey Bolshakov likewise asserted that the authorities needed "a lever in those instances when freedom of speech becomes the freedom to lie and deceive." "We are not planning to put all the mass media under our control for the election period," Bolshakov explained: "we simply needed a mechanism to counter malicious violations of the election law" (Politburo, 9 June).

TsIK member Yelena Dubrovina tried to reassure those opposed to the changes that "the Central Election Commission is not obliged to constantly keep track of the appearance of candidates on television and in the newspapers and will follow up only after complaints by rival candidates who are convinced that adversaries have broken the law" (Gazeta, 11 June).

Media concerned about effect of changes on press freedom, election coverage

Private media and observers have condemned the changes, warning that they will infringe on press freedoms, be enforced selectively, and severely restrict media coverage of the elections.

"Free and democratic elections are now out of the question in Russia, as the legislators shamelessly massacred our constitutional right to comment on party platforms and individual candidates, to forecast the outcome of forthcoming elections, and to warn voters of possible developments ifparticular political force wins" claimed liberal daily Vremya MN's Konstantin Katanyan. Katanyan criticized the new laws for "encroaching upon freedom of thought and speech" and allowing "officials and judges to make highly dubious decisions regarding the intentions of a journalist" (19 June).

Elite-oriented weekly Politburo's Viktor Khamrayev said the amendments wouldlead to self "self-censorship" by media outlets afraid of being shut down. In Khamrayev's view, the media "will limit themselves to the simplest kind of informing" with the result that "the mass of voters whose rights the elections laws are supposed to protect are unlikely to get a clear idea of the election situation and make a truly informed choice" (9 June). Igor Vandenko, writing in elite-oriented Novyye Izvestiya, described the Kremlin-initiated legislative changes as being "clearly undemocratic" and aimed at "ensuring a win for United Russia" (31 July).

Mass-circulation Moskovskiy Komsomolets reported on former TsIK Chairman Alexander Ivanchenko's assertion that "our election law is becoming a criminal-election law" and that its effect will be "the complete loss of the mass media's freedom to cover elections" (8 July).

Union of Journalists General Secretary Igor Yakovenko stated that the law would be applied "selectively". "Only selected media outlets - those initially suspected of being able to say something wrong - will be monitored. There would be no limitations on praising United Russia," he added (Informatsionnoye Agentstvo Ekho Moskvy, 25 June).

Liberal politicians see potential for election law abuses

Centrist, pro-government parties have supported the president's amendments from the outset, while the Communists only recently dropped their opposition, calculating that they can use the new legislation against anti-Communist media outlets (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, 11 June). Liberal parties, however, remain opposed to the changes.

Yabloko campaign chief Sergey Mitrokhin criticized the toughening of the punishment for election law violations, suggesting that the goal of honest elections "cannot be achieved using a red-hot iron" and that, in the Russian context, "the harsher the law, the more chance there is that it will be applied unfairly." Mitrokhin fears that the election laws will be misused and "the fight against black PR and dirty technologies will actually become a fight against those independent mass-media that will not support the 'party of power'" (Politburo, 9 June).

Union of Right-Wing Forces [SPS] Co-Chair Irina Khakamada warned that the freedom of the press risked becoming an "empty slogan" with the loss of independent, oppositional media and objective information on candidates and parties.

She blamed the election law's "extremely broad and vague" definition of campaign agitation, which leaves almost all campaign information subject to its review (Chelyabinskiy Rabochiy, 19 June).

Boris Nadezhdin, SPS Duma faction deputy chairman, noted that elections occur frequently in Russia and such strict regulation of the press would become permanent (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, 11 June).

Regional press most vulnerable to manipulation of law

Media reports suggest independent media in the regions will be especially threatened by the changes.

Extreme Journalism Centre Director Oleg Panfilov asserted that Russia's regional press would be most threatened by the election law changes, "especially those independent media outlets that try to somehow preserve the notion of freedom of speech" (Informatsionnoye Agentstvo Ekho Moskvy, 25 June).

TsIK advisory member Vadim Prokhorov pointed out that despite the suggestion by TsIK Chairman Veshnyakov that press conference coverage not be proscribed by legislation, "any press conference held in the regions by an opposition party will nonetheless be regarded as campaigning while the pro-governor media will be regarded as providing information to the public" (Gazeta, 11 June).

Vremya MN's Katanyan noted the propensity of regional election commissions "subservient to the governors" to take action against local mass media whom they accuse of breaking the election law (28 May).


The media law changes have been defended by the government on the grounds of protecting freedom of speech and free elections in Russia. Many in the media, however, view the changes as a serious threat to those very freedoms. The practical effect of the changes will likely be greater inhibition and self-censorship by the media in pursuing election campaign coverage, particularly at a regional level, where the scope for election law manipulation by local authorities is greatest.


See also:

Freedom of Speech and Media Law in Russia

State Duma elections 2003

BBC Monitoring, August 8, 2003

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