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Campaign coverage law muzzles russian reporters { September 6 2003 }

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Campaign Coverage Law Muzzles Russian Reporters

By Susan B. Glasser
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, September 6, 2003; Page A10

MOSCOW, Sept. 5 -- President Vladimir Putin kicked off the Russian election season this week, confirming Dec. 7 as the date for national parliamentary elections and officially triggering the start of controversial restrictions on campaign news coverage that journalists have loudly protested.

But it was not long before the new law, barring any sort of electoral advocacy in the news media, was apparently violated -- by Putin himself.

On the same day that he signed the decree authorizing the parliamentary elections, the president was shown on two state-run Russian television networks endorsing Valentina Matvienko, his handpicked envoy to northwest Russia, in this month's gubernatorial election in St. Petersburg. The news was not that he had done so -- Putin has long backed Matvienko for the top job in his home city -- but that his statement seemed so clearly to be televised electioneering of the sort now legally prohibited. The media advocacy ban also extends from analysis in news stories to forecasting election results.

Controversy over the new restrictions goes back more than a year, to the implementation of a rewritten Russian law that appeared to ban most of the staples of campaign journalism -- profiles of leading candidates, for example, that touched on their personal lives or their hobbies, or the forecasting of results. Political analysis is explicitly banned in news coverage of Russian elections -- with analysis defined so broadly as to include any context that might help voters interpret a candidate's claims.

In addition, the rules that came into effect last summer require equal airtime or newspaper space for any news coverage of a campaign -- a near impossibility considering that there are 44 political parties registered with the Justice Ministry.

But it was only this summer that Putin signed into law amendments putting real enforcement powers behind the news media restrictions. Now, for the first time, the Russian government will have the power to go to court to suspend the activities of any news organization that violates the rules. Two warnings are enough to trigger the legal process, which can shut down a media outlet for the duration of the campaign.

The head of the Central Election Commission, who has vigorously promoted the new restrictions, had no comment when asked by reporters about the president's televised endorsement. But Matvienko's leading opponent has filed a formal complaint that a top official in the Press Ministry said could become a "dress rehearsal" for how the law will be interpreted during the national election campaign.

Critics of the law, meanwhile, were quick to jump on Putin's misstep as proof of how the law is impossible to observe, and how enforcement is likely to be selective. "Already the law is being ignored," said Oleg Panfilov, director of the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations, a media watchdog group. "It's clear that the Central Election Commission is not going to punish the presidential press service or the national television stations that showed Putin. The suspicion is that these amendments will be used in a selective way, against those media with whom the local authorities have been unhappy."

Panfilov said he recommends that reporters brush up on Article 29 of the Russian constitution, which states that Russians have the right to freedom of ideas and speech and to "freely look for, receive, transmit, produce and distribute information." The constitution, he said, "is above any amendments of any laws passed by the State Duma."

Konstantin Katanyan of the newspaper Vremya MN has sued, asking the Constitutional Court to overturn the section of the law dealing with electoral advocacy by the media, though it is unclear whether the court will rule before the December elections. Katanyan wrote an article about a gubernatorial election in Mordoviya that was deliberately designed to challenge the law. "I violated everything I could violate in this article," he said. He predicted the incumbent governor's victory (he won). He wrote that the governor played soccer well (defined as positive advocacy of the candidate) and that he was a nepotist hiring his own relatives (defined as negative advocacy).

In Katanyan's view, the new rules essentially make political reporting itself illegal. "Commentary, forecasting, analysis, disseminating truthful information about a candidate -- these are the essence of political journalism," he said, "and according to the legislation, this is all advocacy campaigning." At his paper, the plan is simply to ignore the new rules. "We're not abiding by the law but by the constitution," he said.

Even Press Minister Mikhail Lesin, who normally has a combative relationship with reporters, criticized the electoral commission's strict interpretation of the new rules as an "attempt to put limitations on the media" that do not conform to either "the letter or the spirit of the law." If the commission had its way, he told the Interfax news service, "newsrooms would have to shut down their news departments for some months."

Sergei Bolshakov, the commission member who drafted the new rules, said he was "surprised" by Lesin's criticisms and insisted that the rules are meant to counter paid-to-order media attacks on candidates -- a form of "black PR" that even journalists say has been a common problem in post-Soviet Russian elections.

But Bolshakov acknowledged that there are significant new restrictions on what constitutes campaign news. For example, even pointing out that a candidate had made a campaign promise before and not followed through on it would be prohibited. "A journalist does not have the right to compare what a candidate said before with what he is saying now," Bolshakov said.

It is precisely such scenarios that have Russian journalists guessing at what now constitutes legal coverage of the election campaign. "Even if I say how many children a candidate has, this might be considered advocacy," mused Alexei Venediktov, editor in chief of the influential radio station Echo Moskvy. "Imagine I say that candidate Pupkin has seven children, and they will say I want voters to vote for candidate Pupkin!"

As reporters face such uncertainty, the Sept. 21 St. Petersburg gubernatorial election, which presidential favorite Matvienko is widely expected to win, has become an early testing ground for the media restrictions.

In August, a group of St. Petersburg journalists set up a new newspaper, Petersburg Liniya, and devoted half of their first front page to a big blank space, under the headline "Everything about the gubernatorial candidates in St. Petersburg." An accompanying note said the newspaper wanted to "provide you all the truth about the candidates" but was banned from doing so by "arbitrary legislation."

Inside, the journalists had an article in the form of a fable, writing about City X instead of St. Petersburg and "giving actual candidates made-up names," said Pyotr Godlevsky, one of the paper's founders. "If we can't write openly about elections, we have to do it indirectly."

2003 The Washington Post Company

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