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Russia: Analysis -- Russian Officials Increasingly Hostile Toward Media

  • Sophie Lambroschini

Officials in Moscow appear to be taking an increasingly hostile stance toward the media. RFE/RL Moscow correspondent Sophie Lambroschini examines a highly restrictive draft media bill to be debated soon in the Duma and the "Cold War" phraseology of a recent Russian document on media distributed at an international conference:

Moscow, 27 July 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The Russian State Duma is expected soon to consider a controversial media bill that would establish a special ethics council and could introduce major censorship provisions into what are now quite-liberal media laws.

The bill is likely to be debated in the autumn, when the lower house resumes work after its summer break.

Russian private television NTV recently aired excerpts of the draft and showed examples of reports which it says could provoke warnings from the council. NTV says a media organization could lose its license after just two warnings.

According to the report, the draft would make it a crime to disparage a person's dignity if an interviewer -- in the draft's words -- "takes advantage of its interviewee's emotional state whose consequences he does not appreciate." It would also force media outlets to give equal space to different points of view -- a difficult task, given Russian ministries' usually terse replies.

The bill is a long-standing pet project of the Duma's communist faction that was rejected by former president Boris Yeltsin. Now, members of the Duma committee for information policy tell RFE/RL it's back on the agenda and being promoted by the Duma committee on cultural affairs.

The proposal coincides with a recently revealed Russian document on the media that focuses on protecting the country from what it calls foreign "information wars." The six-page document, entitled "A Media Policy for Tomorrow," was distributed at a Council of Europe ministerial conference on mass media held last month in the Polish city of Cracow.

Council of Europe official Roman Prieto-Suarez tells RFE/RL the unusually worded pamphlet portrays international relations as a covert battleground where states wage wars at least partly by using their journalists as weapons.

Ronald Koven, a European representative of the U.S.-based World Press Freedom Committee, says he found the words and phrases used in the document to be reminiscent of the Cold War:

"International control over such things as so-called 'international information terrorism,' the use of international information weapons and so forth. This is the kind of language that we have not heard here in Russia or abroad since the end of the Cold War and which we therefore find extremely unsettling."

The document calls on national governments to stop using information with the intention of "undermining a state's political, economic, and social system, the psychological manipulation of a population for the purpose of destabilizing society." It also calls on foreign countries to refrain from cross-border dissemination of information that contravenes international or domestic laws.

Prieto-Suarez works with the Council of Europe's media section, which organized the Cracow conference. He was careful to distance the council from the wording in the text:

"It's the Russian authorities who were invited to submit a text, and we simply circulated it among the conference participants. But I think it's important to see that it's not a Council of Europe document, not a political document adopted at the conference, and that the entire content is exclusively the Russian authorities. It was not even edited by the Council of Europe -- simply photocopied."

It's not clear yet to what extent the pamphlet represents official Russian views on the media.

In spite of the council's insistence the pamphlet is genuine, the head of the Russian delegation to the Cracow meeting, Mikhail Seslavinsky, has denied any knowledge of the document. The press spokesman for the Foreign Ministry also says his ministry had nothing to do with the document. Spokesman Yuri Grechko tells RFE/RL his ministry only provided technical support for the conference.

Russian officials may be at loss about who actually was responsible for writing the report. But because Russia lost what Moscow calls the "information war" during the 1994-1996 struggle against Chechen rebels -- who were often portrayed as freedom fighters by the foreign press -- many officials are clearly concerned about the media's role in the current conflict.

The Russian delegation's report to the Council of Europe meeting is consistent with worries voiced in the past. One result of Moscow's earlier information problems was the establishment of a Russian Information Center. This organ centralizes all information about recent and current Russian operations in Chechnya and all press trips to the region.

Two months ago, Radio Liberty -- which broadcasts to Russia and several other former Soviet republics -- was labeled a "hostile" media outlet by two information ministry officials. At the time, Deputy Information Minister Yuri Akinshin said his ministry intended to limit the activity of hostile media because of their alleged abuse of freedom of speech. Any such intention was later partially denied by Seslavinsky, who said his colleagues had only expressed their own personal opinions.