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Russia: Putin Vetoes Amendments To Law On Mass Media

Russian President Vladimir Putin has vetoed amendments to the country's media law that would have put stricter controls on reporting on terrorism. Top media representatives and free-press advocates had protested the legislation in a letter to Putin last week, criticizing it as too general and saying its passage would lead to indiscriminate crackdowns. But some commentators say they believe Putin may have planned to veto the amendments all along, not only to look good in the West but also to set himself up as ultimate arbiter of, and benefactor to, the press at home.

Moscow, 26 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin yesterday sent back to the Duma amendments to the mass-media law that would have further restricted news coverage of counterterrorist operations and rebel activities.

That did not stop the president from lashing out against coverage of Moscow's hostage crisis last month that ended in 129 deaths after special-operations forces stormed the theater where Chechen rebels were holding more than 750 hostages.

Speaking yesterday in televised comments during a Kremlin meeting with top media executives, Putin did not name any names but alluded to NTV television. "On the day of the assault on the theater center, the picture on one of the nationally broadcast television channels that was showing the police special forces' movements while describing what was going on inside the building just several minutes before the assault could have led to an enormous tragedy. The people who were doing it were certainly aware of that," Putin said.

NTV has denied that it aired live footage during the crisis.

Despite his condemnation, the president took the side of free-press advocates at home and abroad who have voiced widespread criticism that the amendments on his desk were too general and would have been used to curtail coverage of the war in Chechnya and shut down any organization that annoyed authorities. "It's important to find a balance between restrictions and providing full information to society," Putin said.

The amendments, which were drafted before the hostage crisis took place and passed easily in both houses of parliament in its wake, would have barred the media from publicizing information seen as hindering counterterrorist operations. The measures would have also prohibited the publication or broadcast of "propaganda or justification of extremist activities."

Putin sent the legislation back for revision in a joint committee.

Last week, 30 organizations, including state-controlled and independent television stations and newspapers and press-freedom advocacies, signed a letter asking the president to veto the pending amendments but admitted the media had made "mistakes."

A number of the signatories praised Putin's veto today.

Ruslan Gorevoi is spokesman for the Glasnost Defense Foundation, a free-press advocacy that signed the letter. Gorevoi hailed the veto, telling RFE/RL it was the result of disparate organizations joining together over a single issue. "If, in the future, we can force the authorities to, let's say, adopt essentially wise decisions over big questions -- and to also consult with representatives of the media community -- I think that will be good for the development of democracy and for the development of the Russian press," Gorevoi said.

But others disagree, including media insiders who say Putin aimed to veto the bill from the start. One motive, they say, may have been to make himself more attractive to opinion in the West as a guarantor of free speech.

A second is that with the veto, Putin would make the press dependent on his will as arbiter of what should and should not be reported and which outlets are officially favored and which are pressured or forced out of existence.

Sergei Parkhomenko is editor of "Yezhenedelnyi zhurnal," a weekly magazine he started after a state company seized control of the independent publishing house of "Itogi," the magazine he previously edited. Parkhomenko agrees with the opinion that Putin planned his veto, saying that parliament would not have approved the bills unless the Kremlin had wanted them to pass.

Parkhomenko did not sign the letter of protest released last week, saying that while the document included the signatures of well-meaning individuals, he believes the Kremlin was behind the action. "Convincing several heads of media organizations of the necessity for such a letter -- that was the work of Kremlin officials," Parkhomenko said.

Parkhomenko said fear forced the media to agree that it poses a problem for the authorities -- and to declare its own readiness to address the issue, in part through the placement of internal limits. "In the current situation, we must also talk about the fact that a significant part of the Russian press -- essentially almost all of it -- didn't just declare its readiness for dialogue with the authorities. There would have been nothing wrong with that -- that's a completely civilized and wise thing. But it declared its readiness for a discussion with the authorities on the authorities' terms, on topics forced by the authorities with a result essentially decided in advance," Parkhomenko said.

Parkhomenko said that, in his opinion, the media created no real problems during the hostage crisis and that any difficulties could have anyway easily been addressed through existing criminal and civil procedures.

He said he thinks the bill's adoption in parliament followed by the presidential veto will do more to cripple the free press than if the measures had simply become law.

Parkhomenko predicted that the authorities will seize on the offer of self-restriction in last week's letter during future conflicts, adding, "I think we journalists will be reminded of this situation again many times."