Constitutional Court to examine restrictive media and election laws

New York, September 26, 2003—The Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation has decided to hold a hearing on October 13 examining the constitutionality of legal amendments that recently strengthened state regulation over independent media outlets, particularly their coverage of election campaigns.

The independent Moscow-based radio station Ekho Moskvy and the reformist Union of Right Forces (SPS) political party—one of the plaintiffs in the case—both reported on the Constitutional Court’s decision today.

Four groups have filed separate complaints with the Supreme Court challenging the legal changes made by the bill, titled “On Amendments and Addendums Brought into Certain Legislative Acts,” that was passed by Parliament in June and signed into law by President Vladimir Putin in July. The four complaints will be consolidated into one.

The complaints have been filed at a politically sensitive time in Russia with the pro-Kremlin party, United Russia, receiving favorable coverage in the broadcast media ahead of the December parliamentary elections and March presidential elections.

One of the complaints, which was signed by 104 parliamentary deputies and filed with the court on September 24, has received significant attention in the Russian media. That complaint was initiated by the SPS and supported by other major opposition parties, including the Communist Party, Liberal Democratic Party and Yabloko, according to local press reports.

“We call on the Constitutional Court to overturn these excessive and restrictive amendments,” said Alex Lupis, Europe & Central Asia program coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). “The amendments severely hamper the ability of journalists to report on election campaigns and deny Russian citizens basic information and analysis about the candidates running in the elections.”

The approval of “On Amendments and Addendums Brought into Certain Legislative Acts” granted broad authority to the Media Ministry, the Central Election Commission (CEC) and regional electoral commissions to close media outlets engaging in “biased” political commentary during elections.

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.

CEC chairman Aleksandr Veshnyakov has said that the amendments were designed to minimize the use of illegal campaigning techniques, particularly “black PR”—a fairly common practice in Russia where political parties bribe journalists to write favorable articles about their candidates or negative articles about their opponents. The amendments tend to target journalists rather than the politicians who make the bribes.