| 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.
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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,
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.
of Speech and Media Law in Russia
State Duma elections 2003