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NGOs invited to help design index of freedom of speech in Russia

Moscow, 19 July: Russia's Public Chamber is setting up a working group to develop an index of freedom of speech and press in Russia.

According to a statement by the Public Chamber's press service received today by Interfax, the working group is expected to include representatives from the Glasnost Defence Foundation, the All-Russia Centre for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM), MediaSoyuz, the alliance of heads of regional mass media, the Russian Union of Journalists, and the Guild of Press Publishers. Other interested organizations may be invited to join this list.

"The real aim of developing an index like this is to understand the existing situation for ourselves, and if necessary, sound the alarm with specific data in our hands," said Pavel Gusev, a representative of the Public Chamber's commission on information policy and freedom of speech, and editor-in-chief of the Moskovskiy Komsomolets newspaper. He was speaking at a working meeting with representatives from media organizations. He added that it was "wrong to compare the freedom of speech situation in Russia with that in North Korea where there is not a single free sentence, for example, as some western experts do."

The Public Chamber's press service also said that on the request of the "public activists", VTsIOM had prepared its own proposal for the meeting as to how the index of freedom of speech and the press would be calculated, but that "the concept presented was imperfect and required serious amendment".

In particular, the large-scale public opinion polls proposed by VTsIOM were pointless, said the president of the Glasnost Defence Foundation Aleksey Simonov.

"In order to assess freedom of speech, for example in the press, it is useless to research the readership's opinion. In the Stalin era, 90 per cent of people surveyed would have said that the press was free - people simply believed it," said Simonov.

Rather than analysing the opinions of Russians, the Glasnost Defence Foundation has suggested researching the content of the domestic media. "Not long ago, we carried out content analysis of television broadcasts in the regions, and it turned out that 85 per cent of information was devoted to the authorities, compared to only 20 per cent devoted to society. That is not a normal situation," said Simonov.

For his part, the secretary of the Union of Journalists and author of the current law on the media Mikhail Fedotov said that there was a "risk that the average man on the street doesn't correctly understand the term free speech." "If you ask someone: Are our mass media free? they will say yes, thinking of our tabloid press and scandalous programmes on television," he explained.

"Summing up the meeting, Gusev promised that the opinion of all the experts would be taken into account, and on the basis of those opinions an assignment to compile the index of freedom of speech and press will be drawn up by October this year. The Public Chamber will then hold a tender among research organizations for the right to 'take the temperature' of freedom of speech in Russia," said the Public Chamber's press service.