Under the draft legislation, news organizations can be prosecuted even if they republish or rebroadcast a report in good faith and were unaware of its errors.
Andrei Richter is the director of the Media Law and Policy Institute in Moscow. He says such a law would considerably extend news organization’s liability for incorrect information.
“People whose interests were violated [by the report] used to take action against the person who first published the erroneous information. Those who retransmitted this information only had to publish a correction if this was required by the plaintiffs. Now, everyone is responsible: those who first published such information, and those who reprinted it not knowing, or even suspecting, this information was incorrect,” Richter said.
A Duma spokesperson, however, told RFE/RL that the text of the draft law was not final and that the parliament was open to suggestions and objections from journalists.
Richter says such a law does not exist in other countries, where -- like in Russia -- legislation on mass media protects journalists from prosecution if they can prove they were unaware that the information they used was untrue.
However, the Russian Civil Code stipulates that news organizations can bear legal responsibility if a court rules that they acted in bad faith and deliberately published an erroneous report.
Richter says journalists will be hard pressed to comply with the legislation even if it comes into force.
“Of course, this will have negative effects. Journalists from a traditional, average media outlet are simply unable to check the veracity of information on events that took place in Novosibirsk, Paris, or in rural regions. In practice, editorial offices will have to write only about what happens in their field of vision,” Richter said.
This is particularly true for low-budget or regional news outlets, which lack the funds to double-check all reports.
Richter says the Kremlin’s motive in proposing the amendments was to prevent media outlets from abusing their immunity when they redistribute wrong information.
But the existing legislation, he contends, provides enough tools to curb this type of abuse.
Anna Volodina is a lawyer at the Glasnost Defense Foundation, which monitors media rights abuses in Russia.
She says new organizations could face heavy fines or even closure if the draft legislation becomes law.
“The biggest sanction faced by news organizations for violating the law on election and referendums is either a relatively important fine or the suspension of its activities,” Volodina said.
However, she says, the legislation, would not provide a sufficient basis for putting journalists behind bars for libel unless the charge is combined with another serious offence.
(Alik Gilmullin of the Tatar-Bashkir Service contributed to this report)