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Russian parliament limits media coverage ahead of elections
June 25, 2003

Russia's parliament Wednesday forbade media to take positions on policy or candidates during the upcoming campaign season amid suspicions that the country was reverting to Soviet-style press restrictions.

The Kremlin sought the amended electoral law to cut down on the practice of parties and candidates "buying" favorable coverage from journalists in the main Russian press -- a prominent feature in previous elections.

But journalists warned it could also serve to silence opposition ahead of parliamentary elections in December and the presidential vote in March.

The law came just days after TVS, Russia's last private national television channel, was pulled off the air -- leaving the country's main airwaves entirely state-controlled.

Under the amendments to the electoral law passed by the upper house of parliament Wednesday and by the lower house last week, news organizations will be punished for praising one candidate, policy or position over another.

Upon first violation, the media outlet will receive a warning.

After violating the law twice, the central or region electoral commission can choose to refer the matter to the press ministry, which can then bring the matter before a court.

Observers warned that the law -- which puts all power for punishment in the hands of electoral commissions -- could serve as a pretext for silencing opposition voices while letting official policy make it through to the press.

Deputies sought to ward off that criticism.

"Adopting such a law will not influence the mass media freedom in Russia," Yury Sharandin, head of the Federation Council's commission on constitutional law, told journalists after the law passed unanimously with one abstention.

It must be signed into law by President Vladimir Putin to come into effect.

Paris-based media watchdog Reporters Without Borders said in a statement that the closure of TVS coupled with the new amendments "seriously threaten the diversity and freedom of news coverage."

The group hinted that the "electoral propaganda" forbidden by the amended electoral law could be misused by leaders because its definition remains foggy.

"The term 'electoral propaganda' is not clearly defined and could be construed as referring to any article mentioning a candidate. This would drastically curtail press coverage during election campaigns," it said.

The group also condemned the closure of TVS, adding to the outcry among journalists and observers that Russia was reverting to Soviet-era control of the country's newspapers, television and radio.

Many Russian journalists roundly rejected the explanation presented by officials that they were merely aiming to crack down on the corruption that marked the chaos of the post-Soviet era.

"All we are missing now are the harvesters and the happy collective farmers singing in the fields ahead of a record wheat crop," one Russian journalist told AFP under condition of anonymity.

"This is giving a green light to all abuse," said journalist union chief Igor Yakovenko, warning that the law would stregthen the pro-Kremlin coverage that already marks much media here.

"All the television channels will give the same image and the same text on subjects important to the leadership," he said.

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