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Russia: Under New Media Laws, Journalists Are Damned If They Do, Damned If They Don't

  • Sophie Lambroschini

For the past several months, Russian media and observers have been in an uproar over new legislation that imposes stricter rules for media coverage. The controversial legislation on how the media is allowed to cover elections is being implemented in two current campaigns -- the race for the State Duma, which kicked off on 4 September, and the campaign for the governor of St. Petersburg, where voting takes place on 21 September. RFE/RL correspondent Sophie Lambroschini reports on the new rules and their baptism by fire.

Moscow, 19 September 2003 (RFE/RL)-- Campaigning for seats in Russia's State Duma kicked off two weeks ago. In St. Petersburg, the run-up is drawing to a close as voters elect a new governor in polls on 21 September. And in Chechnya, ballots for president will be cast in two weeks.

All of these polls are being conducted under new legislation governing electoral campaigns in Russia and their coverage by the media.

Officially, the new laws are meant to eliminate unfair campaigning while ensuring balanced information for voters. So far, though, it looks more like the law is lacking in the former without fulfilling the latter.

When the last batch of legislation was finally adopted late last June, the head of the Central Electoral Commission, Aleksandr Veshnyakov, proclaimed the "end of the freedom of lies." He meant the new rules would put an end to the smear campaigns that had dominated elections in Russia by cracking down on their most effective mediums -- television, radio, and newspapers.

The logic appears to be that if a TV channel or newspaper is afraid of the consequences of airing biased coverage, then the whole business of "black PR," as the Russians have come to call it, would be stifled for lack of a stage.

Fedor Kravchenko is a legal expert on media law with Internews, a nongovernmental organization that promotes independent electronic media. He co-authored a booklet prepared by the organization that is intended to help media outlets and candidates work together without breaking the law.

Kravchenko explains why the new rules are tougher: "The law didn't get any softer," he says. "The present law forbids no less -- and probably more -- than before. It increased in size, and therefore there are a lot more norms that can be applied to media outlets with, in most cases, a single type of violation -- the breach of election campaign rules. And if the whole process becomes more complicated, then automatically there are more grounds on which a media outlet can be accused of breaking the law."

The new legislation is complex, adopted by the Russian parliament over the period of a year. Its main components are two new texts.

The first law -- on guaranteeing voters rights during elections and referendums -- came into effect in June 2002. It is a new -- and generously extended -- edition of a law dating from the era of former President Boris Yeltsin.

The new law gives a far more detailed account of how to run an election campaign in general. It also pays careful attention to how the media should cover campaigns and tries to define the difference between "informing" and "campaigning." The distinction is sometimes difficult to make -- a problem the law attempts to solve by explaining in the smallest detail how to present information.

For instance, publishing the latest opinion poll results means that who paid for the survey must also be published -- something polling institutes in Russia regularly refuse to do.

The second batch of legislation was signed into law in early July. It is not a law as such but a series of key amendments to several existing laws. One amendment doubles the maximum fine for "violation of campaigning rules" from the equivalent of $1,500 to $3,000.

But it is an amendment introducing a procedure to suspend media outlets and which gives extended powers to the Electoral Commission that is causing the most uproar.

Kravchenko explains, "Before, there wasn't Article 16.1 of the law on mass media that allows the suspension of the activity of a media outlet for the electoral period if there have been two violations of the law on elections. Before, you had to apply the law on licensing to TV and radio stations, and that was quite difficult. As for printed media, it was not at all possible. As for now, it is ruled by the law on mass media and therefore applicable to both electronic and printed media, and the procedure is relatively simple."

According to the text, amended Article 16.1 allows the Central Electoral Commission to issue warnings to media outlets and allows the Information Ministry to ask a court to suspend the outlet for the duration of the campaign after two warnings.

As an extra twist, if a media outlet receives more than two warnings, then a court has to rule on the suspension. In apparent recognition of the law's harshness, the Central Electoral Commission has conceded that minor violations will probably not be punished.

These statements are "worrisome," says Kravchenko, because they openly state the commission's intention to "decide at its own discretion."

Vladislav Bykov is a legal expert with the Glasnost Defense Fund. He says the law is, in the end, not unfair. "A media outlet can be suspended only with a court order," he notes.

To make matters even more complicated, the Central Electoral Commission and Information Minister Mikhail Lesin appear to disagree over the interpretation of the law, with Lesin taking a softer line.

Bykov says, "There will be a lot of conflicts during the campaigning, and one of the reasons [for this] is that two state organs that are responsible for controlling the implementation of electoral legislation hold different positions on how to define 'campaigning.' So it's very difficult to foresee how this or that piece of information will be understood. Will the media be close to the [Information Ministry's] interests or to those of the Central Electoral Commission? It'll be more a political issue than a legal one."

In the meantime, journalists are expected to follow the new rules. They can learn about them in a special 80-page brochure put out by the Central Electoral Commission. The booklet contains 113 questions and answers on what journalists can and cannot say or write about political candidates and their platforms. The brochure is preferable to wading through some 250 pages of the actual legislation.

Question 21 provides a useful tip when covering Duma debates: It is forbidden to mention that a Duma deputy is running for re-election.

For those too busy even to go through the brochure, commission member Sergei Bolshakov explained some of the new rules in "Nezavisimaya Gazeta" earlier this month.

Bolshakov explained that what the law means by informative media coverage is coverage "without commentaries." It is completely acceptable to write about how a candidate promises to build free housing if elected. However, Bolshakov says it is forbidden to mention that the same candidate failed to fulfill similar promises after a previous election. All candidates must get equal media attention in news reports, regardless of their chances.

So far, the new legislation has been used in practice in three campaigns -- in St. Petersburg, Chechnya, and Yekaterinburg.

In St. Petersburg, Anna Markova, a candidate running for governor against Kremlin-backed Valentina Matvienko, denounced as "campaigning" state television broadcasts showing Russian President Vladimir Putin wishing Matvienko good luck. While the Election Commission admonished the stations, it failed to issue them warnings. The Election Commission and later a court also cleared Matvienko and Putin of any wrongdoing.

In Chechnya, a minor candidate went to court on similar grounds, saying television footage showed Kremlin-backed candidate Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov talking to Putin. His appeal was also rejected.

In another case in St. Petersburg, the authoritative news weekly "Delo" was slapped with a warning for "violating campaign rules" after publishing a public opinion poll.

"Delo's" editor in chief, Sergei Chesnyakov, admits he broke the law but says the law is impossible to respect if a newspaper wants to keep its pages "readable."

"There are so many requirements in that law that in order to publish that article, we would have had to fulfill 15 to 20 items covering one-quarter of a page in 'Delo,' Chesnyakov says. "I want to stress that even if we had fulfilled all the items in the law in this specific article, then we would still have only applied six lines out of a total of 250 pages."

The warning was later lifted by the Election Commission.

Faced with what they see as incomprehensible nitpicking, journalists say they do not intend to change the way they conduct business.

Francesca Mereu covers politics for the English-language "Moscow Times" and used to work for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Moscow.

"We didn't change anything because we believe that if they want to close down or fine some newspaper, it won't have anything to do with what you write or don't write but with how the sympathies of the authorities lie. We'll just adhere to our ethics, just as we did before."

Chesnyakov says the new laws don't have to lead to suspensions for them to have a chilling effect, however. He says that, because of the new laws, media outlets are hesitating about broadcasting anything analytical.

"The campaign was gray, boring," he says, "because without commentaries and analysis, you don't have any food for thought or for debate."

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