Russian bill gives FSB authority to arrest critical journalists

New York, April 29, 2010—The Committee to Protect Journalists urges members of Russia’s parliament to reject a sweeping new bill that would return censorship rights to Russia’s KGB successor, the Federal Security Service, if passed.

Amendments to the country’s administrative code and the law on FSB activities would give the security agency the right to summon journalists for questioning and demand that editors remove articles that “aid extremists” or “appear undesirable” from their publications. The proposed amendments introduce penalties that range from a fine of up to 50,000 rubles (US$1,710) to a 15-day detention for noncompliance.

“Instead of focusing their energy on fighting work-related violence against journalists in Russia, authorities are gearing up to fight the journalists for doing their job,” CPJ Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Nina Ognianova said. “The bill, which gives the security services Soviet-style power to censor information, must be scrapped immediately.”

Particularly disturbing is an “explanatory note” to the proposed law amendments, which openly blames “certain media outlets” for the rise of extremist activities in Russia and singles them out. The note reads:

An analysis of the information available to the organs of federal security attests to intensification of the activities of radical organizations, which leads to the rise of social tension and the strengthening of negative processes in society, in the first place among youth.

Certain mass media outlets, including print and electronic, openly aid the formation of negative processes in the spiritual sphere, the affirmation of the cult of individualism and violence, the mistrust in the ability of the state to defend its citizens, thus practically involving the youth in extremist activities.  

Immediately after the introduction of the vaguely worded bill on April 24, Russian media experts, lawyers, and editors criticized its formulation as too broad, and noted that it returns the country’s main security agency the unlimited censoring powers that its predecessor, the KGB, had in Soviet times. Andrei Soldatov, a prominent expert on the activities of the FSB, told The Moscow Times, that the bill gives the security services the right to act preemptively against media outlets, without having to go through a prosecutor.

Yuliya Latynina, a journalist and political commentator who specializes in the North Caucasus, told the Moscow-based Ekho Moskvy radio: “According to this draft law, if I or my editor mention the absolute inability of the authorities to arrest [North Caucasus] separatists, we would be held responsible for our comments.” She added: “Obviously, it is easier to arrest editors than terrorists.”

The new amendments follow in the footsteps of two sets of amendments—on the law on extremism—which were passed in 2006 and 2007 amid domestic and international criticism. Those broadened the definition of extremism to include media criticism of state officials as a social group and public discussion of extremist activities. A number of individual journalists and media outlets have been prosecuted under those laws since.

On March 31, the independent Moscow-based newspaper Novaya Gazeta received a warning from the state media regulator Roskomnadzor, accusing the paper of distributing extremist information because of its reporting on the activities of the neo-Nazi group Russky Obraz (Russian Image). The newspaper had reported on the group in January as part of its investigation into the double murder of its journalist Anastasiya Baburova and lawyer Stanislav Markelov; the two suspects in the murder are reportedly affiliated with Russky Obraz. A publication can be closed down after receiving two official warnings.