President signs law labeling criticism of state officials “extremism”

New York, July 28, 2006—The Committee to Protect Journalists is alarmed by a new law broadening the definition of extremism to include media criticism of state officials. Despite local and international criticism, President Vladimir Putin signed amendments to the Law on Fighting Extremist Activity today, according to Russian press reports.

The new legislation will allow imprisonment of up to three years for journalists, and the suspension or closure of their publication if convicted of extremism, according to Russian press reports and CPJ sources.

The lower house of Parliament approved the amendments on July 8, and the upper house endorsed them on July 14. Despite objections from opposition parties, human rights activists, and independent media, Putin signed the bill, which will go in effect 90 days from today, according to press reports.

The independent radio station Ekho Moskvy reported today that foreign leaders had called on Putin during the Group of Eight summit of industrialized nations in St. Petersburg this month not to sign the law.

Amendments to Article 1 of the law broaden the definition of extremist activity to include “public slander directed toward figures fulfilling the state duties of the Russian Federation,” as well as “interfering with the legal duties of organs of state authorities,” The Associated Press reported. Such vague language allows public officials to interpret the law as they please and effectively target critics, CPJ sources said.

“This measure is reminiscent of the kind of catchall laws that were used in Soviet times to control the media,” CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon said. “Those in power can now label any journalist an ’extremist’ and effectively stifle critical reporting.”