State Duma Approves Bill Over Media Clampdown
Published: April 29, 2008 (Issue # 1369)
MOSCOW Ч The State Duma passed in a first reading Friday a bill that would allow courts to close media outlets for publishing libelous statements, a law critics say would give authorities an additional tool to crack down on dissent.
The bill would add Уdissemination of deliberately false information damaging individual honor and dignityФ to the list of offenses for which a media outlet can be shut down.
Under current law, courts can close media outlets for publishing state secrets, extremist statements and statements supporting terrorism.
The Duma voted 339-1 in favor of the bill, which will now face two more Duma readings before being sent to the Federation Council for consideration. If approved there, it will be passed on to the president to be signed into law.
FridayТs reading came two weeks after the tabloid Moskovsky Korrespondent published an article claiming that President Vladimir Putin planned to divorce his wife and marry Olympic champion gymnast Alina Kabayeva. The newspaper suspended operations Ч for financial reasons, according to its publisher Ч after Putin dismissed the story as Уrubbish.Ф
The billТs author, United Russia deputy Robert Shlegel, said Friday that the bill was drafted before the Moskovsky Korrespondent article and that it was aimed at making Russian media Уmore civilized.Ф
Shlegel, 24, is a former spokesman for the pro-Kremlin youth group Nashi.
Authorities have initiated numerous libel cases in recent years involving reports about public officials. In one high-profile case, Ivanovo journalist Vladimir Rakhmankov was convicted in October 2006 of publicly insulting a public official and fined 20,000 rubles ($840) for referring to Putin as Уa phallic symbolФ in an opinion piece.
Oleg Panfilov, head of the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations, said the amendment would give authorities an additional instrument to shut down independent-minded media outlets.
УNow that television and most newspapers are under the KremlinТs control, authorities want to control the very few media outlets that remain free in the country,Ф he said. УThere still are a few newspapers Ч and the Internet Ч that are out of its control.Ф
Kremlin critics would likely be targeted should the bill become law, Panfilov said. УIt would work the same way the law on extremism works, only against those who oppose the powers-that-be,Ф he said. УIf [the extremism law] worked properly, many Duma deputies would be in jail for their extremist statements.Ф
Mikhail Fedotov, the secretary of the Russian Union of Journalists and author of the current law on mass media, said it was unnecessary to include the amendment in the media law because libel is already a criminal offense.
УYou should then include [in the media law] that you should not encourage murder, rape or theft,Ф Fedotov said, Interfax reported. УIn short, the whole Criminal Code. This is just stupid.Ф
Even without the libel amendment, Уany word that a governor or mayor doesnТt like is considered by courts to be false information, and the paper is simply closed,Ф Fedotov said.