Constitutional Court abolishes part of restrictive election law

New York, October 30, 2003—Russia’s Constitutional Court today struck down part of a law that sought to strengthen state regulation over independent media outlets, particularly coverage of election campaigns.

According to local and international press reports, the court ruled that a sub-section of Article 48 of the law “On Fundamental Guarantees of Voters Rights” is unconstitutional because it could be used to restrict freedom of expression during election campaigning.

The sub-section had outlawed “political agitation,” defined as criticizing or supporting candidates and their parties, as well as reporting on their polices and background.

Independent journalists and opposition politicians had complained that the law made it impossible for them to do their work during an election campaign. The legal amendment had increased self-censorship in the independent media, limiting coverage of the parliamentary elections set for December 5.

“The Constitutional Court made a decision regarding one little point in Article 48,” said Andrei Richter, director of the independent Moscow-based Media Law and Policy Institute. “It’s an important step in the right direction, but only one step.”

Four groups of independent journalists and opposition politicians filed separate complaints with the Constitutional Court in September challenging the bill, which was passed by Parliament in June and signed into law by President Vladimir Putin in July.

The complaints were 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.

The law 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.

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.