New press laws signal censorship
10 Jul 07

‘If I see you’re involved in self-censorship, or covering up information, I’ll fire you myself!,’ Alexei Venediktov, editor-in-chief of Ekho Moskvy, the independent Russian radio station, tells his staff at a meeting discussing the current media climate in Russia. Ekho Moskvy, one of the few remaining independent media outlets in the country, is well known for its sharp criticism of the Russian government. A number of its journalists are former TV celebrities who came to the company from the independent television channel TVS, which shut down in 2003.

Sergey Dorenko, Evgeny Kiselyev, Svetlana Sorokina, and Victor Shenderovich used to host some of the most popular political shows on Russian TV. They often presented strong criticism of governmental policies, and of the president. But back in the 90s, before Putin, the political climate in Russia was different. Now their programmes on Ekho Moskvy face the threat of stronger censorship.

On 11 July, the Russian parliament adopted amendments designed to intensify the fight against ‘extremism’. The new bill ‘bans the spread of extremist materials, their production, and storage for distribution purposes on the territory of the Russian Federation’. The maximum fine for ‘mass distribution of extremist materials’ is 15 days imprisonment and a fine of 3,000 rubles ($116 US) for ordinary citizens, 5,000 rubles (US $195) for officials, and 100,000 rubles (US $3 890) for companies.

If, as expected, the parliament and the president approve the bill later this year, all media outlets will be responsible for circulating information on closed or outlawed public organisations and groups: when mentioning them, reporters will have to indicate the fact that these organisations have been banned or shut down. List of public and religious organisations that have been closed down or outlawed will be posted on the Internet and published in the media.

The bill includes very broad definitions of the term ‘extremism’, complementing the previous version. Besides the old definitions of extremism as national, racial, social, ideological, or political hatred, it could now be considered extremist to publicly approve of any action preventing citizens from exercising their right to vote and participate in elections. This means that no one would be allowed to call for a boycott of elections.

‘They’ve tightened [legislation] to such an extent that it is now almost impossible to differentiate between extremist statements and ordinary controversy, political argument or criticism of the state,’ Gennady Gudkov, State Duma Security Committee member and retired Federal Security Service colonel, told Ekho Moskvy on 5 July. ‘It’s all left up to the official, the judge, or the prosecutor.’

‘Now, in order to suspend some “unlikable” [disobedient from the authorities’ point of view] media, one will have to exert much less effort then before,’ Maria Kitaichik, a lawyer from St Petersburg, says. ‘It will be enough just to assume that the media distributed deliberately false information; criminal procedure on libel against journalists or media companies won’t be necessary any more.’

A couple of months ago, Ekho Moskvy started receiving letters from prosecutors and security services. Authorities were concerned about broadcasted interviews with Garry Kasparov and Eduard Limonov, the leaders of oppositional, pro-democracy coalition Other Russia, and about the commentaries of Yulia Latynina, a well-known critic of the Kremlin from Ekho Moskvy.

The bill also includes provisions for security services to tap telephone conversations in the event of suspicion of a broad range of crimes. Until now, this power only pertained to suspicion of the most serious of crimes.

This is not the first time the government had introduced Draconian measures to combat ‘extremism’. Last year, it adopted laws which meant that slandering a government official could be treated as extremism, although a court must first rule on the statements in question. The law also criminalised the creation and/or distribution of taped or printed material deemed extremist.

Russian Internet daily has reported that the parliament deputies of United Russia, the major party in the State Duma, were told that after the parliamentary summer vacations they are to propose more anti-extremism law amendments.

According to the Moscow based NGO Media Law and Policy Institute, Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, and Tajikistan are the only states in the world currently exercising this type of legislation.

Maria Yulikova is Moscow correspondent for the Committee to Protect Journalists

By Padraig Reidy

Padraig Reidy is the editor of Little Atoms and a columnist for Index on Censorship. He has also written for The Observer, The Guardian, and The Irish Times.