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#4 - JRL 7015
January 13, 2003
Media to be on best behaviour for elections
By Natalia Rostova

In December 2003 Russians will go to the polls to elect a new State Duma. As the election year gets under way, Deputy Chairman of the Central Election Committee in charge of mass media Sergei Bolshakov shared his standpoint in an interview with Gazeta.Ru on the code of conduct for journalists during election campaigns.

You offered the members of the Media Industrial Committee [a body comprised of representatives from media businesses and formed earlier this year as a lobby group for the industry] to jointly discuss the draft bill on mass media. How is the interaction proceeding?

I have come to the conclusion that apparently the new bill, just like the law on mass media currently in force, says no word whatsoever of the mode of conduct for the press during elections. And Mr. Venediktov (Alexei Venediktov -- the editor-in-chief of the Ekho Moskvy radio station. Gazeta.Ru) confirmed to me that is indeed so. I consider it to be a problem that needs to be solved -- such a provision must exist.

There are elections, which means, there must be laws stipulating journalists' responsibility in connection to the electoral laws. In my opinion, everything is fine with the freedom of speech in the old law, while we are interested only in one special matter -- elections.

So, you have met the committee members?

No. I have not had a chance. Actually, I am not eager to take part in the sessions, because they are working on the draft, not us. But none of the committee members has so far proposed any initiatives in that sphere. On the other hand, I assume that even if they do not include the provision on elections in the bill, there will still be some deputy who will recall that the election exists.

Not so long ago you said that it is necessary to improve the legal regulation of the activities of the mass media in the electoral process. What did you mean by that?

Our law envisions an administrative punishment -- a fine for violating the law on elections with regards to the rules of campaigning. But several times I have encountered journalists who said frankly that those fines are stipulated for in advance in our budgets. But to me it seems that a state authority, for instance, the one that I represent, must not calmly watch such things happening.

I do admit that there are random violations and then those journalists or media outlets are punished. But others know in advance that they will be punished, they have already included the expense in their budget! And we must cut that short. This is not the mere whim of Mr. Bolshakov who bears a grudge against the mass media.

One has to look at what happens then. In some constituency someone buys media outlets and wins an election. And then what happens? A violation of the constitutional rights of the people -- of those who lost at the polls and of all other citizens who voted for them -- what has happened is a violation of the electoral laws.

There is only one thing to be done. If there is such a violator, who pays the fine once, twice, three times, he must be stopped. Naturally, this must be made through a court of law. It seems to me, that the law must take into account such things.

In other words, you agree with [Deputy Press Minister] Mikhail Seslavinsky, who has suggested that the issue of certain newspapers or programmes, which violate the law, be suspended for a week or two during the election campaign?

Absolutely, but only on the condition that no other state organ except a court of law can administer such sanctions, and, naturally, only until the end of voting. What would that do? It would ensure the rights of the electorate. Also, it seems to me that media reports must be trustworthy, objective and impartial.

And what media do you trust personally?

You see, the problem of the Russian Federation is that we do not know which media outlets can be trusted. In the West, for instance, in Great Britain, France, the situation is different. There everyone knows that one can trust a tabloid only for one thing: if it contains the telephone number of a woman of easy virtue, it is correct. While other media outlets cherish their reputation. In Russia things are different.

In Russia even the most solid newspaper may post phone numbers of women of easy virtue, a paper, which you have grown to trust may publish a report made to order, no matter how bad it may smell. I do not trust any outlet. I trust concrete journalists, because I read everything concerning elections and know everyone who writes about them.

And do you trust the state-run media outlets or the private ones more?

As a matter of principle, I am a state official, and to be honest, I read more of the state-owned papers. As for the elections, I read everything when I have a chance. Some reports seem trustworthy to me and others do not. To be well posted on what happens where, I read Gazeta.Ru, Strana.Ru. That suffices.

How do you assess the conduct of media outlets in general during election campaigns?

he main idea is that media outlets take part in the election campaign, without them there would be no elections. Those who understand that would not say the silly things which are being said. Today journalists think that the new electoral law passed in St. Petersburg has banished the media from elections. That is not serious!

The point is not that mass media are banished from the electoral process, but that henceforth they will have to increase their professional level and to earn money not through doing some dirty job in somebody's favour but will have to use their talent and skill.

I read the comments on the St. Petersburg election [to the local Legislative Assembly] and all the fuss about it, and understand that people who hoped to earn, so to say, but in truth to get unlawfully, $10,000 have received only $3,000. And that is why they raise all that fuss. They want to get $10,000 each, or $20,000 or $100,000.

Such things will not happen any more, I hope, and the times when anyone who felt like it went fishing in troubled waters and enriched themselves illegally are over. Such things cannot happen forever in a state, since such a state cannot develop.

The state is growing to be governed more and more by the rule of law. The journalists who protest most want to be beyond those bounds, to be over the law, they do no not want, like all other participants of the [electoral] process, to have their rights, obligations and scope of responsibility; they want only one -- unfounded -- right, to violate the law on mass media and the right to violate the law on elections.

What exactly do you mean by that?

What I am speaking about are materials made to order. That is something that is not allowed by the law on mass media, and the electoral law. The law is violated since there is no responsibility.

Or, to be more exact, the responsibility is envisaged, but it is very ambiguous. Could you name at least one reporter on whom a punishment, be it an administrative, criminal, or disciplinary punishment has ever been imposed? Well, maybe someone was fired; some editor grew tired of a person who kept on writing made-to-order reports, thus impairing the reputation of the edition.

But those are singular cases that receive no wide publicity. For instance, at the end of last year two journalists went on trial: one was given a 4-year suspended sentence; the other was sentenced to 6 years in a medium-security prison. They had not only lost any notion of morality, ethics and professionalism, but had embarked on a path of direct crime. They founded a paper and started writing compromising reports, and then before publishing them, they contacted the heroes of their publications and demanded that they pay $5,000 or the story would go to print. This amounts to downright racketeering, blackmail!

By the way, of those who do not understand a thing, or feign misunderstanding, only a few are left. Some journalists continue to fight against responsibility. Naturally, this fight is camouflaged by talk of press freedoms and violations of those freedoms. What I am talking about has nothing to do with that. I'm talking of corruption. And for me it is of no importance whatsoever as to who took the money and broke the law to the benefit of someone -- an official or a reporter. It is all the same! What I am talking about is that candidates who win an election pay the journalists, and then the journalists, too, begin to compete, slinging mud at one candidate and praising another.

Thus, in short journalists are the main evil?

No. Journalists are my best friends, for there are journalists and 'journalists'. For instance, not long ago we heard one political figure say that he would protect the media. I call that card-sharping. There is no such thing as 'all media outlets'. There are reporters, various papers, programmes. There are those who observe laws, and those who do not. There are journalists convicted by court for what they have done… But are all journalists the same?

Take, for instance, the members of the election commission who have the casting vote. For them there is responsibility envisaged by law -- criminal and administrative. Why is there no responsibility for the journalists? Why, if an electoral official is a bribe-taker, must he go to prison, while a journalist doesn't?

There was a case in Chuvashia in which a court convicted the chairman of a divisional election committee and representatives of a candidate, but again unfortunately gave them suspended sentences, although the law envisions punishment of up to 4 years in prison for such crimes.

I hold that the court should have given them all maximum sentences: a crime connected with infringement of the basic principles of formation of the state authorities, in my opinion, is more grave than stealing a bicycle. But the court ruled differently.

And public opinion is the same. One might say, to steal a bicycle is terrible. And as for rigging voting results, forging ballot-papers… A member of the election commission may rig election results, forge ballot-papers -- it is not considered serious. The attitude is such that courts pass suspended sentences for such crimes, referring to the fact that he has a family, children, and he will turn over a new leaf.

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