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Putin puts soviet bar on poll coverage { September 9 2003 }

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Putin puts 'Soviet' bar on poll coverage

Nick Paton Walsh in Moscow
Tuesday September 9, 2003
The Guardian

The Kremlin has introduced a draconian election law which threatens the media with closure if they give details of candidates' personal lives or analyse their policies.

The new law aims to stem the "black PR" and slurs which marred past elections. But it has infuriated opposition MPs and journalists. Some said it represented a return to the Soviet era control of political debate.

The decree, signed by President Vladimir Putin, places a blanket ban during campaigning on forecasting results and requires candidates to be given equal coverage - a practical impossibility because there are 44 parties.

A media outlet can be shut during the electoral campaign after two warnings.

"The law substantially limits press freedoms," said Alexander Shishlov, a senior member of Yabloko, Russia's leading liberal party.

He said the law was even more draconian when the Kremlin presented it to parliament, and MPs removed some of its harsher clauses.

"Yet the law retains its repressive character," he said. "Its adoption is a very alarming sign [for Russia's future]."

The existence of the decree came to light after Mr Putin began the electoral campaign last week when he announced parliamentary elections on December 7.

The presidential election, which analysts consider a foregone conclusion for Mr Putin, is in March.

But Mr Putin seems to have fallen foul of the law himself. He appeared on national television last week endorsing Valentina Matvienko for election as governor of St Petersburg, although the law prohibits officials using their posts to promote their parties or re-election.

A court began hearing a against the appearance, but some high-ranking officials are, under the constitution, immune from prosecution.

The leader of the opposition Union of Right Forces, Boris Nemtsov, said: "We live in a country where everyone from the president to the pauper does not follow the laws. While this continues, we will have big problems."

Journalists in St Petersburg have been the first to face the new restrictions.

One newspaper left its front page blank in protest while filling its inside pages with articles about a fictional election in a faraway land - in reality the St Petersburg vote, but with candidates' names changed.

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