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Russia: Constitutional Court Hears First Cases On Controversial New Media Law

The controversy over the way the media in Russia are allowed to cover the current election campaign is entering a new stage. Already, new legal limitations on the coverage of the campaign have resulted in warnings to media outlets. RFE/RL's Moscow correspondent looks at the differing interpretations of the text as Russia's Constitutional Court prepares to decide on the legality of some of the text's provisions.

Moscow, 15 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- A new law meant to regulate election campaigns in Russia and their coverage by the media is being challenged even as it is being implemented.

The text of the new law has journalists and election officials alike scratching their heads about how to interpret a ban on "illegal campaigning." In a surprise decision, Russia's Constitutional Court has agreed to hear four different appeals against the new legislation brought by three journalists and more than 100 State Duma deputies.

All four appeals challenge several provisions of Article 48 and the law on "guaranteeing voters' rights." Under the law, Russian media are prohibited from publishing or broadcasting information about candidates that has nothing to do with official functions or which could create a "positive or negative image" of a candidate.

For every violation, local election commissions can issue warnings. After two warnings, the Media Ministry can appeal to a court to suspend the media organization until after the election.

Theoretically, the law is meant to limit the media's role solely to "informing" citizens about election campaigns. But its critics argue it is so vague and far-reaching that almost any election story could be banned, and that it therefore violates the Russian Constitution, which guarantees the right to collect, receive, and impart information.

When the appeal hearing opened earlier this week, lawyer Pavel Astakhov stated the case against the new law. "It's impossible not to have doubts about the constitutionality of some of the provisions of the law of 12 July 2003, on 'guaranteeing electors' rights and referendums,' which introduced a ban on the expression of personal opinion and the discussion of political problems by citizens and the media, in regard to candidates, blocs and unions during the campaign period," he said.

However, Central Election Commission Chairman Aleksandr Veshnyakov, who initially drafted the amendments with the Kremlin's support, insisted that the law is just. "One again, we carefully analyzed all the complaints and statements to the Constitutional Court -- all the reasons and the arguments made by the plaintiffs," he said. "And after having done this analysis, we conclude that in our opinion there is no basis for the claim that [certain] norms do not concord with the Constitution of the Russian Federation."

At a news conference today, Veshnyakov accused the media of putting pressure on the court. Earlier, he called the appeals part of a campaign against his department.

State Duma Deputy Valerii Grebennikov defended the new law, arguing that the public will be better informed because the law bans the media from taking sides. "As soon as the campaigning starts, you are not allowed -- as a newspaper or a television [channel] -- to communicate your appraisals. You are only allowed to state the opinions of those taking part in the campaign," he said.

Another deputy, Sergei Popov, said that while tougher legislation is necessary to weed out smear campaigns, Article 48 is an example of a good idea gone too far. "The law was a step in the right direction," he said. "But at the same time, many mistakes were made. And in this case, I think that the Russian proverb is right -- a spoonful of tar will spoil a whole barrel of honey."

Last week, a local newspaper in Kaliningrad was issued a warning for mentioning in an article that Duma candidate Aleksei Yushenkov is the son of former Deputy Sergei Yushenkov, who was slain in an apparent contract hit. According to the local election commission, mentioning this affiliation is illegal, since it has nothing to do with the candidate's job. The same commission handed out 15 other warnings to local media outlets.

In Tula, a local election commission decided that references by a local communist newspaper to two candidates being a "general" and an "actress" also went against the law.

Earlier this month, a Bryansk election commission issued several warnings to local newspapers -- in one case, for publishing an interview with a candidate from the Yabloko party but not from competing candidates, in two other cases for failing to mention when a public-opinion poll was conducted and who had paid for it.

Lawyer Fedor Kravchenko works for Internews, a nongovernmental organization that supports open media worldwide. Kravchenko, who lectures local Russian election commissions on the new legislation, said the law lacks clarity. "If you're going to give one and the same unclear text to 1,000 people, then probably among those 1,000, you'll have a few people with an original way of thinking who will read the law in a completely unexpected way because it is not clear enough," he said.

Some observers also say the law's vagueness leaves a lot of room for arbitrary decisions that could be politically motivated.

In the end, however, the simple fact that the Constitutional Court decided to hear the appeals is being seen as good news by the Russian press. Indeed, Veshnyakov himself expressed "surprise" at the Constitutional Court's decision to hear the cases so soon. Most observers had speculated that the court would postpone the cases until after parliamentary elections in December.

If the Constitutional Court declares all or parts of Article 48 illegal -- it has three weeks in which to make up its mind -- its decision would be immediately applicable, at least in theory. But in practice, there appears to be some leeway. The State Duma would have to cancel the unconstitutional provisions and adapt them before they would go into force.