#18 - JRL 7061
February 13, 2003
GOING TO THE POLLS BLINDFOLDED
The media are not going to cover election campaigns
New amendments to the law will restrict free speech during elections
Author: Maksim Glikin
[from WPS Monitoring Agency, www.wps.ru/e_index.html]
AMENDMENTS TO ELECTORAL LAWS AND THE LAW ON THE MEDIA, RECENTLY SUBMITTED TO THE DUMA, CONSUMMATE THE PROCESS OF FORMING AN ENTIRELY NEW LEGAL FIELD. THEY LEAVE JOURNALISTS AND EDITORIAL OFFICES FACING A SERIOUS DILEMMA. ALMOST ANY COMMENTARY ON ELECTION CAMPAIGNS MIGHT BE INTERPRETED AS ILLEGAL.
The next elections may take place without the participation of the media. Amendments to electoral laws and the law on the media, recently submitted to the Duma, leave journalists and editorial offices facing a serious dilemma. Is it better to take no risks, by avoiding any mention of campaign battles - or to do their professional duty, knowing that the TV channel or newspaper may be shut down on absolutely legal grounds at any time? The list of these legal grounds is so extensive and worded in such a manner that journalists have no chance of saying a single word on the subject without breaking some provision or other. The amendments submitted to the Duma in the lead- up to the parliamentary election consummate the process of forming an entirely new legal field, a process initiated last year.
The "death penalty" is to be applied without trial or investigation. A newspaper may be shut down before a court hearing (its bank accounts will be frozen); and a TV channel may find its license revoked without involvement of courts altogether. Lawmakers specify, however, that newspapers or TV channels may be closed only for the duration of the election campaign. But the financial situation of TV companies is such that even a suspension would put them out of business.
Punitive bodies - election commissions and agencies empowered to supervise the media (officials of the Media Ministry and their regional colleagues) - will need little pretext to apply tough sanctions. Catching a newspaper or TV channel with two violations will suffice. That is easy.
We have counted nine major reasons to strip readers and viewers of their right to information.
All these "nine commandments" for journalists come down to the following: thou shalt not criticize a candidate; thou shalt not say a single word about a candidate unless you are prepared to say just as much about all other candidates; thou shalt not comment on results of opinion polls on the eve of elections; thou shalt not make forecasts; and thou shalt not venture to state thy own ideas on the subject. Along with that, some strong restrictions concerning campaign advertising will be imposed on the media. Authors of the amendments want editors and producers to live by the orders of the Central Election Commission during campaigns, not by the laws of a free market economy.
Essentially, this will be a moratorium on free speech and free private enterprise. Abolition of two vital constitutional principles casts doubts on the inviolability of another one - dealing with free will. Russian citizens are being asked to vote blindfolded. What kind of consequences should we expect from this shortage of information? Here are answers of some prominent political scientists and pollsters.
Georgy Satarov, INDEM Foundation: I do not expect anything good to come of these amendments. They are harmful. Citizens should vote on the basis of informed decisions. It is clear that politicians themselves do not want this - we have this kind of political situation in Russia. The media is the only institution making free will intentional and explaining what is what and who is who. When the media is not permitted to do so, expect some highly negative consequences.
Sergei Markov, Political Surveys Institute: In my view, these amendments may seriously distort the electoral process in general. The amendments are too restrictive. In theory, the laws may be all right. In practice, however, they are so harsh that absolutely all participants in elections will be forced to violate them regularly. I do not think all this will result in a shortage of information. The media will continue doing its job. We will witness a series of court cases, actually. Politicians will stop canvassing for votes and will concentrate on winning court cases. We will have a situation where the outcome of the election depends on court bureaucracy rather than the will of the people.
Leonid Sedov, National Public Opinion Research Center: These amendments will undermine the election process. TV, national newspapers, and local media are the major sources of information. The amendments essentially mean that voters will be deprived of an unbiased picture and therefore unable to make their choice on the basis of unbiased information. Elections are always accompanied by dirty tactics and by a process of informing the people. As of now, voters will be asked to make up their minds only the basis of what the authorities choose to tell them. I think that many Russian citizens will refuse to vote at all...
P.S. The information not to be published during elections:
WHAT IS PENALIZED:
- In reporting on campaign events, journalists are not supposed to comment on them.
- A newspaper or TV channel is not permitted to cover a campaign event of one candidate or bloc without following this up by similar reports on actions of other candidates and blocs (the reports are supposed to be of the same length and in similar time slots - for radio and TV).
- Journalists are not permitted to publish any information, even truthful information, about a candidate if that information may damage his dignity or business reputation, and if the newspaper or TV channel is not prepared to give the candidate similar space (air time) free of charge for a rebuttal.
- Journalists are not allowed to report results of opinion polls without a thorough description of how they were conducted. The description must include nine aspects - including the statistical error margin and a list of the persons or agencies who ordered the opinion poll.
- Prices of space in newspapers and air time on radio and TV must be similar for all candidates.
- Journalists are not permitted to write an article on election without mentioning who ordered it and paid for it (when the article was published free of charge).
- Newspapers reporting on elections must not vary their print run or regularity. This will be taken as promotion of a specific candidate or party, and prosecuted accordingly.
- Newspapers and TV channels must not promote advertisements of companies and organizations established by candidates or their associates.
A media outlet may be closed for the duration of the election campaign:
- By a court decision simultaneous with the filing of the lawsuit on suspension, i.e. before the hearing.
The lawsuit is to be filed by the Media Ministry or a regional registration structure at the request of the Central Election Commission or a regional election commission.
The grounds - repeated violations of the rules set up by the law on elections.
- Broadcasting license of a TV channel may be revoked without a court decision.
The decision is made by the structure that issued the broadcasting license.
The grounds - repeated violations of the law on elections.