#16 - JRL 7208
June 3, 2003
Freedom of Speech Is About to Vanish
New mass media laws are being developed in Russia and the USA
Freedom of speech is a myth, the fruit of a morbid imagination. Democratic values are defied everywhere, and Russia is no exception. This is a real problem for the USA too - Americans are so proud of their freedom that they even manage to export it, because there is too much freedom in America. However, the US Federal Communications Commission has recently changed the law on media ownership that was passed in the States 50 years ago.
According to the previous law, a single company could not own both newspapers and television stations in one and the same city or town. The law has been changed completely and the restrictions have been canceled. American legal experts believe that the decision of the Federal Communications Commission has struck democracy a serious blow. People have started expressing their protest against the reform in many cities. The new law de facto bars the existence of independent mass media outlets, allowing media tycoons to control the entire media market.
On the subject of Russia, the State Duma is to consider a new law about mass media as well. The law has been prepared by Industrial Committee specialists (its members include media holding owners). The draft law has been posted on the website of the Russian Press Ministry. A public discussion of the document (or of an alternative document) is not supposed to take place.
The new law on elections seems to be even more interesting than the new law about the media. The Press Ministry held a meeting in Moscow on May 27th. Alexander Veshnyakov, the chairman of the Central Electoral Committee, said at the meeting that media outlets would have "to take a cold shower, if they were going to violate the law during election campaigns." Veshnyakov said that the State Duma was to consider a new editing of the election law on June 11th (together with amendments to the law on mass media). The new election law stipulates restrictions on media outlets, the activity of which could be suspended during the time of an election campaign if they violate the conditions the law stipulates.
The idea of a struggle against so-called "dirty techniques" is definitely a good idea, although the methods that are going to be used are really not good. A fine is a common punishment for such things in Europe, but in Russia a newspaper will be simply shut down. Also, the criterion for determining that a legal violation has taken place is not clear either.
The bureaucracy has put up obstacles in the way of expressing opinions publicly. The point of the amendments is very simple. It will be up to an official to determine "illegal agitation" for this or that candidate from the "objective coverage of the election procedure." Russian reporters joke that the difference between the former and the latter is similar to the difference between erotica and pornography: Everyone may interpret it in their own way.
If a newspaper or a magazine violates the election law twice, it will be enough to suspend their publishing. Appropriate changes to the law are planned to be submitted to the Criminal Code and the Code of administrative violations. "If it gets put into practice, the pressure on journalists will reach an unprecedented level during election campaigns. The number of complains and claims will definitely increase a great deal as well," the Vremya MN website wrote.
In fact, the Press Ministry is supposed to be on the side of journalists. However, the ministry does not share the point of view of the Central Electoral Committee as far as the amendments are concerned. Nevertheless, the newspaper Izvestia said, the ministry does not want to have a part in public opposition to the Central Electoral Committee.
When a state tries to put strong pressure on mass media outlets, it proves that the society of this state is far from being democratic: It means that the disagreeable media will be subjected to repression. In fact, all the mechanisms for this have already been created and practiced in Russia. It is an open secret that the authorities use dirty pre-election techniques in a very sophisticated way in order to promote their candidates.