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Russia5 May 2008

Concern about young Putin supporter’s bill to amend media law

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Reporters Without Borders is concerned about a proposed amendment to the media law which the lower house of parliament, the Duma (photo), approved at its first reading on 25 April. Proposed by Robert Schlegel, the Duma’s youngest member and staunch supporter of Vladimir Putin, it would give Rossvyazokhrankultura, the federal agency that oversees the media, the power to close down any media deemed to have defamed on more than one occasion.

“This amendment would reinforce the already extremely heavy pressure on the media in Russia,” Reporters Without Borders said. “It would become very easy to portray criticism as defamation and to have a news media closed. It would just encourage self-censorship under the pretext of inviting journalists to be more responsible.”

Schlegel’s bill would modify articles 4 and 16 of the media law. As it stands, article 4 punishes use of the media to break the law, for example to divulge a state secret or defend terrorism. The bill would make defamation punishable under article 4 as well. It would add the clause: “It is forbidden to use the media with the aim of disseminating manifestly false information that attacks a person’s honour and dignity or harms his reputation.” Under article 16, Rossvyazokhrankultura could, after issuing a news media with two warnings for article 4 violations, ask a judge to close it down.

The only Duma member to vote against the bill on the first reading was Boris Reznik, a member of the pro-Kremlin United Russia party and deputy president of the Duma’s information policy committee, who called it “mindless” and “useless.”

Many journalists and human rights defenders have reacted with concern to the bill. Pavel Gusev, the editor of the Moskovskiy Komsomolets daily newspaper, said “adoption of the amendments would aggravate the situation of freedom of expression in Russia.”

The Russian Civil Chamber, a body that advises the president, announced on 29 April that it would advise the Duma against adopting the bill. The Civil Chamber press office said: “The mechanism allowing for the closure of a news media without a court decision would do away with criticism of the government and would permit the easy elimination of undesired newspapers and TV stations, especially in the regions.”

Glasnost Defence Foundation president Alexey Simonov called the bill an “attack on press freedom. “What they have done is stupid,” he said. “I hope that in the course of the next two readings they will take the decision not to definitively adopt these amendments.”

Schlegel, who was unsuccessful in his first attempt in January to get the Duma to approve his bill, used to be the press spokesman of the pro-Putin youth movement Nashi.

The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe’s rapporteur on media freedom has voiced concern about the bill, recommending “media self-regulation” as the way to reinforce public confidence and respect for freedom of expression.

The bill must be approved at its second and third reading in the Duma, must be approved by the Federation Council (parliament’s upper house) and must be signed by the president before it takes effect.

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