Election Coverage: Will There Be Any?

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Sometime in the next few weeks, the State Duma is to debate a package of amendments to Russia's laws on the mass media and charitable organizations, as well as to the Criminal and Administrative codes. The amendments, sponsored by President Vladimir Putin, are intended to bring these laws and codes into line with the new law on the basic guarantees of voters' rights.

Horse-trading continues before the Duma votes on these amendments in their crucial second reading, but all of the big issues have already been settled in negotiations with the Central Elections Commission.

Proposed changes to Russia's mass media law would give the government broader powers to stop the presses. If a publication or other media outlet commits two violations during a single election campaign, federal or regional elections commissions can file a complaint with the Press Ministry calling for the offender to be shut down until after the election campaign is over.

The voters' rights law, passed last summer, prohibits electioneering during a campaign that is not paid for by a party or candidate with official campaign funds. "Electioneering" under the new law includes speculation as to what would happen if a particular candidate or party were to win or lose, reporting on a candidate outside the scope of his or her professional activities, and any "other actions" that could influence the voters. In other words, the new election law prohibits not just "unauthorized" electioneering, but all independent political analysis for the duration of an election campaign.

The new law forbids giving more space or airtime to one candidate than to others, and requires that reports of campaign events be presented without bias or commentary.

In theory, the law has been in force since last November. But to date these provisions have not been enforced because the law contains no mechanism for punishing offending journalists and media outlets.

Putin's amendments would fill this gap.

One loophole does remain, however. Anyone not on a candidate's payroll will still be able to write about elections on Internet sites that are not registered as Internet publications. This would still be a violation of election law, of course, but the president hasn't come up with a punishment for it yet.

Central Elections Commission chairman Alexander Veshnyakov has emphatically denied that recent legislation governing elections in Russia strikes a blow against the freedom of speech. "It strikes a blow all right," he said, "but against the freedom to lie, against negative campaigning and dirty money."

When journalists and average voters talk about violations of voters' rights, they usually focus on how the ruling elite misuses the power of office (or "administrative resources") to ensure victory for the "party of power" and its candidates. And when members of the elite talk about the shortcomings in the electoral process, they angrily denounce so-called "negative campaigning." By "negative campaigning" the ruling elite always means compromising information about its candidates, whether that information is true or false.

Abuse of the power of office, especially when it involves vote-tampering and removing candidates from the ballot, directly violates voters' rights. Negative campaigning, even in its most egregious forms such as libel, does not. It more likely violates the ruling elite's monopoly on tendentious campaign coverage.

Independent candidates by definition have no access to "administrative resources." When things get nasty they prefer to "go negative" or buy votes. The establishment also buys votes, but it doesn't just hand out cash on street corners. It buys votes indirectly, misusing the power of office, as when the administration of the Krasnodar region allocated 300 million rubles for road repair and construction of a new stadium in Novorossiisk in order to give their man a boost in the mayoral election.

In the Duma's first reading of Putin's proposed amendments, the four factions that enjoy "administrative resources" -- Unity, Fatherland-All Russia, People's Deputy and Russia's Regions -- voted to ban "negative campaigning."

This means that during election campaigns, the mass media could no longer independently remind voters which candidates voted to legalize the importation of nuclear waste, or to evict people from public housing for falling behind on their bills, or to raise phone rates, or against raising the minimum wage. That sort of information could only be printed or aired in campaign ads paid for by the candidates and their parties.

On the other hand, the proposed amendments effectively legalize the abuse of power. Officials who get involved in ballot-stuffing or removing their competitors from the ballot could be fined, it's true. But the fines -- a few thousand rubles -- are merely symbolic. Were a candidate to get up to the same kind of monkey business, he would face a fine and up to four years in prison. The same applies to election commission employees -- the very people who would be called on to do the dirty work for those higher up the political food chain.

As Duma Deputy Boris Nadezhdin joked, governors can now pay their fines for abusing the power of their office up front, and then "do whatever they like."

According to the letter of the law, television programs like "Besplatny Syr," "Tushite Svet" and "Odnako," which deal with politics, would have to be pulled off the air for the entire upcoming Duma election campaign, and again for the presidential campaign next spring.

But since all laws in Russia are enforced sele0tively, it doesn't take a genius to figure out that Mikhail Leontyev's program, "Odnako," will stay on the air, while Viktor Shenderovich's "Besplatny Syr" will get the hook. It should be obvious that the Central Elections Commission will turn a blind eye to slanted coverage of incumbents backed by the "party of power" on state television, and that it will crack down on independent Internet publications for posting "compromising" material "not related to the candidate's professional duties."

You may recall that in the election campaigns of 1999 and 2000, Veshnyakov muzzled opposition journalist Alexander Minkin even though he lacked the legal means to do so, while allowing "party of power" pit bulls Leontyev and Sergei Dorenko total freedom of expression. And how Veshnyakov cynically announced that Putin's announcement of his "personal" decision to vote for the Unity party was not a misuse of the power of his office. In fact, he said that by reporting the announcement, the press had violated the president's freedom of speech.

The new legislation affords grim prospects for satire, political analysis and independent journalism. The only real hope is that, in line with the old Russian tradition, the severity of the new laws will be mitigated by their non-enforcement.

Vladimir Pribylovsky, president of the Panorama think tank, contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.