Restrictive media law amendment moves forward in Duma

New York, May 1, 2008–An amendment that would allow the Russian courts to close media outlets for publishing defamatory statements has made its way through the parliament’s lower house, according to local press reports.

On April 25, the State Duma approved on a first reading a restrictive bill that would add the dissemination of “deliberately false information that insults the honor and dignity of another person or damages one’s reputation” to the list of violations for which a press outlet can be shut down.

The bill’s author, 24-year-old Robert Shlegel, is the youngest deputy from the ruling United Russia party; he had previously served as a spokesman for the pro-Kremlin youth group, Nashi, English-language daily The Moscow Times reported.

“Libel is already a criminal offense in Russia, and the Duma should be decriminalizing defamation rather than piling on new punishments,” CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Nina Ognianova said. “We call on the State Duma to scrap this amendment on a second reading. Criminalization of journalism has no place in a democratic Russia.”

The proposed bill would amend and expand Article 4 of the current media law, which was passed in December 1991 and allows for the closure by the courts of media outlets found guilty of justifying terrorism; divulging state secrets; disseminating extremist materials; and propagating pornography, cruelty, or violence.

“This law, if passed, would be detrimental to the media because it would allow for the closure of entire media outlets, not just the punishment of the author of the defamatory materials in question,” Andrei Richter, director of the Moscow-based Media Law and Policy Institute, told CPJ. “It would also send a strong signal to the media that the state is watching what they publish, which, in turn, would have a chilling effect on their coverage.”

At the media law amendment reading on Friday, all but one parliamentary deputy–Boris Reznik of United Russia–approved the bill, the business daily Kommersant reported.

In recent years, Russia has contracted the boundaries of acceptable reporting by modifying its laws.

Last July, President Vladimir Putin signed into law a series of vaguely worded amendments to the penal code that broadened the definition of extremism to include public debate about it; the year before, he approved a similar bill that equated media criticism of public officials with extremism. Both sets of amendments added new penalties for the media found guilty of violating them, including the outright suspension of media outlets.

Russian authorities have proven sensitive to criticism in the press. In September 2006, authorities in the city of Ivanovo found Vladimir Rakhmankov guilty of criminal insult for satirizing in an article online Putin’s campaign to boost the country’s birthrate. In January, prosecutors in the city of Vladimir opened a criminal case against local television station TV-6 for allegedly insulting the president.