Dear Mr. Chairman:
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), an independent, nonpartisan organization dedicated to defending press freedom worldwide, is very concerned about a bill, titled “On Amendments and Addendums Brought into Certain Legislative Acts,” currently under consideration in the Russian Parliament. The bill, which is scheduled for a second–and possibly final–reading in the lower house of the Duma on June 11, seeks to strengthen state regulation over independent media outlets, particularly their coverage of election campaigns.
Central Electoral Committee (CEC) chairman Aleksandr Veshnyakov noted in the online daily Gazeta.ru that the purpose of the bill is to minimize the use of dirty campaigning techniques in the forthcoming December 2003 parliamentary elections and the February 2004 presidential elections. In particular, he said that the bill seeks to minimize the use of “black PR,” a relatively common practice where political parties bribe journalists to write favorable articles about their candidates or negative articles about their opponents.
Economic underdevelopment and low advertising revenue means that journalists in Russia are underpaid and sometimes accept bribes from political campaigns to supplement their incomes. While “black PR” is a broad and pervasive problem in Russia, under the approach outlined in this bill, the media are the primary targets for punishment, rather than the corrupt politicians who offer them bribes. “Black PR” reflects a lack of transparency in campaign finance in Russia, a more appropriate measure to address this problem would be campaign finance reform, rather than media regulation.
In addition, numerous media reports, as well as several Moscow-based legal analysts interviewed by CPJ, have criticized the bill’s vague language, which grants broad, excessive, and arbitrary authority to the Russian Media Ministry, the CEC, and regional electoral commissions. These agencies would have the authority to shutter media outlets during electoral campaigns for engaging in political commentary deemed to favor a party or candidate.
But these agencies are often highly politicized and selective in enforcing regulations. For instance, the regional electoral commissions are often lenient on media coverage that favors incumbents and harsh on coverage of their opponents. And the CEC often enforces the rules more stringently on independent media than it does on state-run media.
Thus, CPJ believes that granting excessive and arbitrary authority to federal and regional officials to shutter media outlets during election campaigns will not solve the problem and will adversely affect Russia’s already poor press freedom record by denying voters a variety of information and opinions about candidates. For this reason, we call on you to delay passing the bill and to work more closely with press freedom and media training organizations based in Russia to formulate more realistic and effective amendments.
Thank you for your attention to this urgent matter. We await your reply.