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Russia: Putin-Approved Media Document Causes Concern

  • Sophie Lambroschini

Russian authorities have approved a new doctrine on information security that pledges to protect constitutional freedoms, but its wordy and vague clauses imply less rather than more freedom for media organizations. RFE/RL Moscow correspondent Sophie Lambroschini reports it's too early to tell how the doctrine will affect information flows, but she says that many observers are concerned any changes will be for the worse.

Moscow, 14 September 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin over the weekend approved a new policy doctrine on information security.

The doctrine, drafted by the Security Council, is not a law and carries no legal force. Nevertheless, its vague and overly long wording has spurred concern it may set a basis for stricter control over the media by authorities.

Sergei Ivanenko is the head of the Yabloko faction and a member of the information committee of the State Duma. He says the document as it stands is an "empty shell." But he says the sheer length of the document -- some 9,000 words -- probably masks some bad intentions. He says if the doctrine's authors really wanted to promote press freedom, the document would fit on one page.

To its credit, the doctrine does pledge to protect the rights of citizens to receive, transmit and share information. And it pledges more efforts to update technology to protect military and commercial secrets.

But its sheer wordiness leaves the reader with the distinct impression that authorities consider information to be a dangerous weapon.

The doctrine states plainly that Russia's information security is threatened by the "dissemination of misinformation" about state policy and the aim of "certain countries" to infringe on Russian interests and dominate in the global sphere on information.

Evgeny Volk, a researcher with the Heritage Foundation, writes frequently on Russian political and security issues. He says he's concerned by the doctrine because it reflects what he calls the authorities' "obsession with control."

"[The doctrine] integrates in a completely logical way with what is happening with the government's policy to establish control over all the key spheres of [political] life: be it political parties, parliament, the regions, and of course to a certain extent over information in its largest sense."

Volk says the doctrine should be read in light of past official statements. After the Kursk submarine disaster, for example, Putin scolded the media, which was critical of the government's handling of the crisis, saying newspapers and television had spread lies and was undermining the army.

Volk says another source of concern is the vagueness of a formulation that leaves "any bureaucrat free to interpret" the intentions of the president. He says the general tone of the document reflects what he calls the "Soviet" education of its authors.

Andrei Richter, head of the Center for Media Policy, a Russian non-governmental fund, agrees the document should be criticized. But he says there is no reason for panic since the doctrine has no legal force whatsoever.

This may be true, but many fear the document is only a first step in a legal assault on free press that could begin soon with changes to the country's relatively liberal media law. The law was first adopted in 1991 and then modified in 1995. For months there have been rumors that the state intended to use its relatively strong position in the State Duma to push through certain amendments.

A member of the Duma information committee told RFE/RL today that the law on the media is constantly bombarded with amendment propositions. Vadim Bulavinov says there have been more than 500 proposals to amend the law, although he says most will not be adopted.

He says those amendments most likely to be passed would not infringe on basic press freedoms, but that they would introduce some important changes.

"They don't violate the rights of journalists in any way. They speak about a more objective attitude and more responsibility for the information they publish.

Other bills in preparation include one that would establish a higher television and radio morality council. It proposes to punish a radio or television station if journalists take advantage of interviewee's emotional state to make him say things which may get him into trouble. Another article would force media outlets to give equal space to different points of view.