CPJ urges Putin not to sign amendments

November 14, 2002 12:00 PM ET

November 14, 2002

His Excellency Vladimir Putin
President of the Russian Federation
The Kremlin
Moscow, Russia

Via facsimile: 011-7-095-206-5173 / 206-6277

Your Excellency:

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is extremely concerned about amendments to the Law on the Struggle with Terrorism and the Law on Mass Media that were recently passed by the Parliament and now await your final approval.

Both amendments were under consideration months before the hostage crisis began on October 23 at the Moscow theater where the musical "Nord-Ost" was playing. The lower house of Parliament, the State Duma, approved the amendments on November 1, and the upper house of Parliament, the Federation Council, approved them yesterday.

While we recognize that Moscow residents have lived through a traumatic experience recently, we are concerned that the tragic events of October are being used to justify further restrictions on the Russian media. In fact, the Russian press played an extremely constructive role during the hostage crisis. At a time when the public was apprehensive and afraid, the media provided accurate and timely information about what was happening inside the theater. After the raid by Russian forces, in which more than 120 people died from inhaling a narcotic gas, the press asked questions that the Russian public wanted asked, such as, "Was every possible measure taken to protect the lives of the hostages?"

Some of these questions may have made your administration uncomfortable, but it is the proper role of the press to take up such issues on behalf of the public. The new amendments--which place excessive and arbitrary restrictions on the ability to report in times of crisis--will not protect the Russian public from terrorism. In fact, the new regulations will make people more vulnerable by interfering with the ability of the media to keep them informed and to hold the government accountable.

Our primary concern is that the amendment to the Law on the Struggle with Terrorism, which bans the media from disseminating information that "hinders the execution of" or "justifies resistance to" a counter-terrorist operation, is too broad and vague. The Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations, a Moscow-based press freedom organization, has pointed out that the amendment fails to define any of these critical terms. If applied broadly, the amendments could be used to further suppress reporting on the military operations in Chechnya, which is already extremely limited because of restrictions imposed by the Russian military.

In addition, the amendments significantly broaden the Media Ministry's authority to censor or close media outlets. This is particularly disconcerting because the ministry has a history of enforcing media regulations arbitrarily, selectively targeting outlets whose coverage does not correspond with the Kremlin's views.

The October hostage crisis in Moscow is a case in point. The Media Ministry temporarily closed the private Moscow television station Moskoviya for allegedly promoting terrorism; threatened to shut down the independent Moscow-based Ekho Moskvy radio station for airing a telephone interview with a hostage-taker; and warned the national television network NTV not to air interviews with the hostage-takers. The Ministry also issued a warning to the government-run Moscow daily Rossiyskaya Gazeta for publishing the photograph of the body of a woman killed by the hostage-takers. These steps were taken while the State Duma was examining the two amendments and had not yet passed them.

The amendment to the Law on Mass Media proposes changing Part 1, Article 4 to read: "Prohibited is the use of media for purposes of committing criminally punishable acts, disclosing of information containing state or otherwise legally protected secrets, engaging in extremist activity, distributing information on the technology of production of weapons, ammunition, explosive materials and devices, as well as of distributing programs advocating pornography, violence, and brutality."

Media Minister Mikhail Lesin claims that these restrictions are necessary to protect civilians from terrorism. But the actions taken by the Media Ministry in October demonstrate that the amendments are more likely to be used to shield the government from criticism. Some members of Parliament made this point when they expressed concern that the new law could be used to suppress critical reporting in advance of parliamentary elections in 2003 and the presidential elections in 2004.

The Russian press already works under adverse conditions. Independent media outlets face excessive legal restrictions, economic impoverishment, political intimidation, and violent retribution for critical reporting on official corruption and human rights abuses in Chechnya.

The proposed amendments pose a grave danger to press freedom in Russia because they contain excessively vague language that authorities could use to justify serious infringements on the work of journalists. We urge you, Your Excellency, not to sign these amendments into law.

Thank you for your attention to these urgent matters. We await your reply.


Sincerely,

Ann Cooper
Executive Director

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