3 June 2008


Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has called on parliament to scrap a bill that would have given the authorities the power to close down media outlets suspected of libel, a move welcomed with cautious optimism by the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations (CJES), Glasnost Defence Foundation (GDF) and other IFEX members.

The amendment would have allowed the government - even without a court decision - to prevent media outlets from operating if a libellous statement was perceived to have been printed or aired. Russia's media community warned that it could have been used to stifle independent and critical reporting.

In a letter to the State Duma, Russia's lower house of parliament, Medvedev said the bill would hinder journalists while failing to reduce defamation. He criticised the proposed amendment and warned that it would "create obstacles to the normal functioning of the media."

The amendment "will not help to achieve the desired goal to protect the interests of citizens against the circulation of defamatory information," he said. "It would be expedient to withdraw the bill from further hearing," he added.

The State Duma approved the proposed amendment in first reading on 25 April. The bill would have added anti-libel measures to a law that bans the publication or broadcast of material encouraging terrorism or extremism, and which has already been criticised as being open to abuse by officials.

While CJES welcomes the move, it notes that the legislation was already doomed. Vladimir Putin's United Russia party, which holds a majority in the State Duma and effectively controls which laws are passed, withdrew its support on 19 May. The party also decided to create a special working group to prepare a new and "improved" draft of the media law, which CJES and GDF fear may result in even tougher legislation.

GDF agrees that the President's actions are positive, but warns not to rush to conclusions about Medvedev, who the Kremlin is trying to paint as the "progressive new President." "It is possible that this is an evil political game in the spirit of the Byzantine traditions so popular in present day Russia," says GDF.

Many IFEX members rank Russia low on the media freedom scale, highlighting the unsolved murders of more than a dozen journalists during Putin's eight years as President, as well as the increased state control of major television channels and newspapers.

Regardless, the move has awakened cautious hopes of greater media freedom under Medvedev, a former corporate lawyer who was sworn in as President on 7 May, succeeding Putin. Last month, Medvedev met with the head of the Russian Union of Journalists, which journalists hope is a sign of the Kremlin doors opening up to a new and constructive dialogue.

In another positive development, a Russian court recently ruled as unconstitutional criminal charges brought against Manana Aslamazyan, the former head of the journalism training organisation Educated Media Foundation, says ARTICLE 19. She had faced up to five years in prison on "trumped-up charges" of smuggling foreign currency, and the foundation was forced to shut down after police raided its office.

Visit these links:
- CJES: http://www.cjes.ru/lenta/?lang=eng- GDF: http://www.gdf.ru/digest/digest/digest382e.shtml- IFEX Russia page: http://tinyurl.com/6e8yfo- Excerpts of meeting between Medvedev and Russian Union of Journalists: http://tinyurl.com/6d94aq- BBC, "Medvedev opposes media penalties": http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/7433362.stm(Photo: Russia's new President Dmitry Medvedev, left, behind his predecessor Vladimir Putin)

(3 June 2008)

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