October 2, 2008

Russian Prosecutors, MPs May Place “New Restrictions” on Media – Daily

Text of report by heavyweight Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta on 1 October

[Report by Ivan Rodin and Aleksandra Samarina: "Prosecutor's order. The supervisory body explains demands to toughen the mass media law by the need to fight extremism"]

At its parliamentary hearings yesterday, the Duma accepted amendments to the law on mass media prepared by the Prosecutor- General's Office. If the lower chamber adopts them in October, the journalistic community will receive a range of new restrictions on its work.

Deputy Prosecutor-General Viktor Grin reminded the deputies of the need to adopt in October a draft law, prepared by the Prosecutor- General's Office, aimed at improving the fight against extremism. As the Prosecutor-General's Office does not have the right to legislative initiative, it is deputies who will submit the disputable law. The recommendations made during yesterday's hearings strictly indicate who of them should sign amendments to a whole range of laws, including those concerning mass media. The honour of pushing initiatives of the prosecutor's office through Okhotnyy Ryad [the headquarters of the Duma] was granted to members of the Duma Security Committee Aleksey Rozuvan, Vladimir Stalmakhov and Yevgeniy Teplyakov, as well as the first deputy chairmen of the Committees on Information Policy and on Nationalities' Affairs Sergey Kapkov and Arkadiy Baskayev. They are entrusted "to submit in October 2008 to the State Duma a federal draft law prepared by them". Prosecutorial staffers did not mind the plagiarism. This is because it is specifically their powers that the proposed amendments to the laws on mass media, countering of extremist activity, and freedom of conscience, as well as to the Code of Administrative Offence, would expand.

At present, for example, the law on mass media says that a citizen or an organization can demand a retraction from a publication. If a newspaper, for instance, cannot prove its case, it can either print a retraction or try to defend its point of view in court. But this is what the Prosecutor-General's Office proposes through proxy authors: all federal and regional bodies of government, a department registering mass media, and naturally prosecutors can make a demand to any publication for refuting on a mandatory basis certain "information that does not correspond with reality". At the same time, no indication is made anywhere as to who is to determine that this information is specifically such. Apparently, it will be the body that demands the retraction. By the way, for refusing to fulfil this demand legal entities, or editorial offices, may be required to pay a fine of R3,000-5,000 [116-193 US dollars].

The proposed handling of "incorrect" internet sites is even harsher. If a prosecutor detects some extremist materials, he will have to go to court. With a positive ruling in hand, it will be possible to order the provider to shut down access to the delinquent information.

If a website is repeatedly observed to post "bad" materials, the court will block access to it altogether. Let us recall, by the way, that according to the current law practically any piece of information can be deemed extremist - even, let us say, one harshly critical of a state official or a state department.

Religious organizations, especially new ones, are suspected of extremism almost a priori. Any religious educational institution will have to go through a registration process, presenting its curricula to the state in advance. Also toughened is a legalization procedure for these structures. Apart from a dozen mandatory papers, they will have to provide "information on faith teaching basics and the corresponding practice, including on history of origin of the religion and the association in question, on forms and methods of its activity, its attitude towards family and marriage, education, the attitude of followers of this religion towards health and on restrictions for members and servants of the organization on their civil rights and duties". Translated into Russian, this means that the state simply wants to know whether the followers of a new creed will want to evade taxes or military service or to practise polygamy or mass suicides.

Boris Reznik, Duma deputy and chairman of the Committee on Information Policy, expressed strong doubt about the prosecutor's office initiatives: "Parliamentary hearings are not the end of the world yet. They can issue any recommendation. Meanwhile, the Duma either accepts or rejects it. We have committees, the government and legal departments which examine draft laws. We are ready to uphold our rights of journalists and civilized relations with law- enforcement agencies, with society and with authorities."

Reznik told Nezavisimaya Gazeta that a special group of deputies is currently working full steam ahead on a new version of the law on mass media. This work is managed by first deputy Duma speaker Oleg Morozov. Changes are necessary, the expert is confident, but not the ones proposed by the prosecutor's office: "Legislation has changed very significantly today. For example, we have an active law on joint-stock companies, and mass media in our country are mostly joint-stock companies. According to the law on mass media, the chief editor is elected by the editorial staff. According to the law on joint-stock companies, he is appointed by shareholders. However, our ideas do not change the democratic essence of the law on mass media."

Regarding attempts by the prosecutor's office to impose control over the internet, Reznik told Nezavisimaya Gazeta: "There are a type of people in our country who advocate a very simple principle: to prohibit, restrict and censor all and sundry. Thus far, however, we have managed to protect the rights of journalists, the rights of readers and the rights of [internet] users. I remember a great number of such amendments and none of them passed through..."

Originally published by Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Moscow, in Russian 1 Oct 08.

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