Russian Authorities Gain Powers to Shut Down Media

Robert Shlegel. Source: kommersant.ruOn April 25th, Russia’s lower house of Parliament, the State Duma, passed an amendment to the law on mass-media in its first reading. The new law gives authorities greater powers to shut media outlets.

The legislation adds a short statement to Part 1, Article 4 of the existing law regulating media outlets, and forbids using a registered media source to spread “false facts that discredit the honor and dignity of another entity, or undermine their reputation.” It passed nearly unanimously, with 399 delegates for, one against, and two abstaining.

When the draft law was originally proposed, on January 25th 2008, it was simply going to add the word “libel,” but it was expanded before it reached a vote. The deputy that initiated the legislation is Robert Shlegel, a former “commissar” of the pro-Kremlin Nashi youth movement, and the youngest MP in Russia. He argued that the standing laws on mass-media were not enough, and that closing a libelous publication was essential, since material compensation was “incommensurately smaller” than the harm done by a libelous article. He added that the law would force editors and media owners keep greater oversight of journalists.

According to Shlegel, the law grants leverage courts to punish outlets that repeatedly publish libelous materials.

By amending the law on mass-media, legislators are also granting greater powers to the Ministry of Justice and Russia’s Federal Registration Agency. Whereas before, trying a libel case was a criminal matter left to the courts, the new law lets officials give out warnings to any newspaper, television channel and radio station without a court case. Two warnings in the course of 12 months mean the media outlet must immediately cease publishing, pending a trial to decide whether it should remain shut permanently.

The Nezavisimaya Gazeta newspaper cited an unnamed source in the State Duma, who said that the amendments were related to the scandalous article published recently in the Moskovsky Korrespondent, which speculated that President Vladimir Putin was marrying gymnast Alina Kabaeva. That paper has since stopped publishing.

Part 1, Article 4 of the present law “On Mass Media,” is titled the “Inadmissibility of Misuse of the Freedom of Mass Communication.” It says that, “[n]o provision shall be made for the use of mass media for purposes of committing criminally indictable deeds, divulging information making up a state secret or any other law-protective secret, disseminating materials containing public calls to perform terrorist acts or publicly justifying terrorism or other extremist activities, or broadcasting materials propagandizing pornography or the cult of violence and cruelty.”