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#3 - JRL 7235
New York Times
June 23, 2003
Russian Lawmakers Move to Limit 'Biased' News of Election

MOSCOW, June 22 With a new election season approaching, Russia's politicians have opened a pre-emptive attack on the rollicking, aggressive and, truthfully, at times corrupt political coverage by the nation's newspapers and television and radio stations.

Complaining that salacious and dishonest journalism threatened to pervert the democratic process, the lower house of Parliament, the Duma, voted overwhelmingly last week to amend Russia's campaign laws to allow the authorities to shut down news organizations for campaign coverage deemed to be biased.

Taken to their literal extremes, as opponents assume they will be, the new restrictions would for the first time punish news organizations that advocate one candidate over another, that editorialize against a position or policy, or that report critically on questions of character "not related to the candidate's professional duties."

While the first violation would result in a fine, the second could result in a suspension of publication or broadcast for the duration of the campaign a penalty that would be influenced heavily by officials answerable to the very politicians who drafted the amendments.

The restrictions raise questions not only about freedom of the press, but also about the fairness of elections in a country still struggling to establish basic democratic norms.

"Lawmakers abolished our constitutional right to comment on the policy programs of parties and candidates, to make predictions regarding the outcome of elections, or to warn voters about the possible consequences of a victory for any political force," the newspaper Vremya said on Thursday.

Underscoring the effect that critics said the new restrictions would have on political journalists, Vremya's headline declared, "Silence of the Lambs."

The amendments, drafted by President Vladimir V. Putin's government, still need approval by the upper house of parliament, the Federation Council, and the signature of Mr. Putin before becoming law.

Mr. Putin, who last fall vetoed legislation restricting media coverage of counterterrorism operations, kept a characteristically studied distance from the legislation when asked about the restrictions at his annual news conference on Friday.

Mr. Putin said he still needed "to acquaint myself properly with the draft," while emphasizing that the amendments "must not, of course, be related to restricting the freedom to disseminate information."

The news media in Russia are already strictly controlled by the state.

Today, for example, the Press Ministry closed the last independent television channel, TVS, citing a prolonged financial crisis that left many of its employees unpaid for weeks. It is to be replaced by a state-owned sports channel.

Opponents of the restrictions, however, said the rules would allow the government to reach still further into the content of reporting on the campaign ostensibly to mandate balanced coverage, but in reality, they say, to stifle aggressive and critical coverage.

A day after the Parliament's vote, the chairman of the Central Election Commission, Aleksandr A. Veshyakov, warned that the Press Ministry would be watching media coverage closely to ensure that news organizations "adopt the same attitude to all comers the same free airtime on TV, the same column inches in the newspapers."

Ann Cooper, the executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, an advocacy organization in New York, said in a statement that the restrictions would "only promote self-censorship and deny citizens access to basic information and opinions about the elections."

"State regulation of the independent media is already highly politicized in Russia," she said.

Supporters, including some of Mr. Putin's appointees, said the restrictions were necessary to protect candidates from scurrilous reporting in newspapers and on television and radio, a feature of previous campaigns.

In particular, the amendments, part of a package of changes to the election laws before the coming parliamentary elections in December and the presidential election next March, are intended to curtail the common and corrupt practice of political parties or their financial supporters paying journalists for articles favoring candidates or attacking their opponents.

The legislation would also require, among other things, that candidates or political parties report such payments as campaign expenses.

Sergei V. Bolshakov, a member of the Central Electoral Commission and an author of the amendments, said they were needed to ensure fair and balanced coverage and to protect the rights of the voters from media manipulation by behind-the-scenes power brokers.

"It doesn't restrict freedom of speech," he said in an interview in the commission's headquarters in Moscow. "It restricts freedom of dissemination of information, but only during the election campaign."

Mr. Bolshakov emphasized that the amendments had been drafted with the support of the Union of Journalists, recognizing, he said, the need for self-restraint against the worst journalistic abuses. But the union's proposal to drop the penalties against news organizations did not make it into the legislation passed last week.

In one compromise, the commission did delete a provision that would have defined news conferences, a staple of even Russia's less-than-media-savvy politicians, as a campaign event, thus exempting coverage of them as potentially partisan.

Under the law, the national or local election commissions could bring complaints of biased coverage to the Press Ministry, which registers news organizations. Only a court, at the ministry's request, could decide to suspend a newspaper or television program.

Aleksei K. Simonov, the president of the Glasnost Defense Foundation, a free-speech advocacy group in Moscow, said the authorities would almost certainly apply the restrictions selectively to suppress critical coverage of favored candidates. At the same time, however, he criticized the excesses of the media, which he called "as yellow as an autumn leaf."

"Freedom of speech is a social reality," he said in an interview, explaining that the government had a responsibility not to restrict the media, while the media had a responsibility to act in a way that built the trust of its audience. "There is no freedom of speech in this country."

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