MOSCOW -- Russian lawmakers have decriminalized defamation and slander and made threatening journalists a criminal offense punishable by up to six years in jail, in a move praised by international observers hopeful of an improvement in Russia's adverse media climate.
But rights activists in Russia remain skeptical the legal changes will bring an end to the legislative persecution of journalists, warning that the success of the amendments to the Criminal Code will hinge on how they're enforced.
The State Duma passed the amendments scrapping Articles 129 and 130 on "libel" and "insult" in their third reading on November 17. Violence or threats against journalists or damaging journalists' equipment will carry a maximum six-year jail term or five years of corrective labor, according to the new law.
The changes are due to enter force in 2013 and have been hailed by the Organization for Security and Cooperation of Europe (OSCE).
In a press statement, the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Dunja Mijatovic said the "breakthrough" and "commendable” amendments to the Criminal Code "will contribute to curbing violence against journalists and enhancing media freedoms."
"Attacks on the press are attacks on democracy," Mijatovic said. "I therefore welcome the recognition by Russia's legislators that attacks against journalists should be treated as a special category of crime."
Irada Guseinova, an analyst with the Moscow-based Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations, was more muted in her response.
"I'm not going to say that [the amendments] are really good, that they had to be brought in, and that they really will have a substantial impact, because the most important thing as our experience shows is [whether] the amendments actually work," Guseinova said. "As we know, in Russia some of the laws work and others either don't work or only get used in certain situations -- they apply to some people but not to others."
Media-freedom activists have long said that Russia's libel and expanding antiextremism legislation has been misused by local officials to silence and persecute journalists.
In November 2009, Irek Murtazin, an opposition journalist, was jailed for 21 months for libel and "inciting hatred against social groups" when he criticized Mintimer Shaimiev, then president of Russia's Republic of Tatarstan.
The OSCE's Mijatovic said she had flagged the issue of decriminalizing defamation during an April trip to Moscow.
But Guseinova said Murtazin's case was rare and that the challenges journalists in Russia face were not first and foremost tied to legislation misapplied against them -- in comparison with neighboring countries, where it is common place.
"We do not have the same kind of aggression [against journalists] as they have in Tajikistan or in Armenia, where they try and jail journalists for slander," Guseinova said. "We generally do not have that kind of severe criminal persecution of journalists in Russia."
Oleg Orlov, the head of the Moscow-based Memorial human rights group, approved of the new legislation but echoed Guseinova's concerns over the implementation of the amendments.
"It would be good if these crimes against journalists were actually investigated," Orlov said. "The point is that threats and violence against journalists are very often never investigated -- the problem is not the legislation but the practice of investigating."
The Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations found 161 instances of legal and judicial persecution of journalists this year, with 39 physical attacks on journalists.
"The point is we have a lot of good laws -- the question is how they work," Guseinova said.