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Russia: Court Knocks Down Media Restrictions, But Will Free Election Coverage Work Only To Kremlin's Advantage?

Last week, Russia's Constitutional Court overturned a controversial section of a law severely restricting media coverage of election campaigns. The court ruling was broadly welcomed. But after nearly a week of unharnessed campaign coverage, media watchers are now questioning whether the decision runs the risk of hurting, rather than helping, the argument for a free press.

Moscow, 5 November 2003 (RFE/RL) � Last week's Constitutional Court ruling was expected to breathe life into a sluggish campaign season by giving the media free reign to cover December's key parliamentary vote.

Free-press advocates and opposition politicians were ecstatic following the court decision to overturn a section of a voters' rights law restricting media coverage of election campaigns. The day the court ruled the restrictions violated Russians' fundamental right to freely receive and impart information, Duma Deputy Boris Nadezhdin, a member of the Union of Rightist Forces party, said: "Journalists and publications can now say whatever they want or deem necessary about candidates, parties and all the rest, providing they abide by the law on media and their professional obligations. That's the essence of the Constitutional Court's decision."

Deputy Sergei Popov of the opposition Yabloko party went even further: "It puts an end to the authorities tightening the screws on the press. From now on it will have to be proven in court that a journalist or a publication intended to campaign [for a certain candidate]. And it's clear that journalists often publish information without pursuing such an aim. It's part of his work. And the [final] intention is to inform citizens, and journalists can [now] fully inform citizens."

The 30 October court decision eliminated a section in the voters'-rights law that limited media outlets to providing only purely factual "information" on election campaigns. Before the ruling, any publication or program that appeared to express opinion, or gave qualitative appraisal of a candidate or imbalanced coverage of candidates could be accused of illegal campaigning if there was a chance that it might influence voters.

The vagueness of the law, combined with the harshness of the punishment �- media outlets risked suspension for the duration of the campaign after just two warnings -� left many reporters worried and uncertain. Interpretations of the law bordered on the ridiculous -� one media outlet was criticized for mentioning in a candidate's biography that she used to be an actress. Only state television channels did their own direct, and technically illegal, campaigning by showing regular footage of government officials at work -� an implicit nod of support for pro-Kremlin Duma candidates.

Mikhail Melnik is the head of Russia's Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations. He said the court ruling will have a positive effect by encouraging journalists to talk about both the December elections as well as presidential elections next spring. "Of course, the press will be more open after the Constitutional Court's decision," he said. "The press was very scared by this legislation, and held back considerably in providing information about the participants of electoral campaigns."

Melnik said, however, that the ruling is just a small exception in a system where authorities still wield near-complete control over the media. He said general election coverage is unlikely to see a dramatic change, particularly on television, which on a national level is almost exclusively state-controlled. In this way, he said, the ruling may even work to the Kremlin's advantage by giving broadcasters free reign to cover pro-presidential candidates with no fear of censure.

During the weekend, state-controlled ORT television broadcast a five-minute report on alleged financial links between the Communist Party and exiled oligarch Boris Berezovskii, one of the most reviled figures among the Communist electorate.

This was followed by brief footage on the activities of two candidates running for Unified Russia, a party with strong ties to President Vladimir Putin. Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu was shown giving a teddy bear to a schoolgirl. Interior Minister Boris Gryzlov was filmed speaking about the importance of developing the small-business sector. Both officials are on obligatory pre-election "vacation" periods in accordance with Russian election law.

Just a week ago, these broadcasts could have been condemned as "illegal campaigning" -� the first because it cast the Communists in an unflattering light, and the second because it failed to be strictly informative. Now, however, such footage is permissible �- unless it is proven in court to be a premeditated, intentional violation of the law.

Melnik said such a case is highly unlikely. "All [legal] experts agree that it will be very difficult �- almost impossible �- to prove that an official intentionally used his position for campaigning," he said. "And so of course those parties who are closest to the authorities are the ones that will have an advantage."

Communist Party head Gennadii Zyuganov promptly complained about the ORT coverage, saying it showed clear bias. Central Election Commission head Aleksandr Veshnyakov agreed, and reminded national television stations that the Constitutional Court ruling "insisted on the importance of respecting basic principles of objectivity and accuracy."