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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Critics Say Media Bill Poses Threat

Proposed changes to the liberal 1991 law on mass media would pose a serious threat to freedom of speech and of the press in Russia, critics warned.

The stated aims of legislation being considered in the State Duma, parliament's lower house, are to curb Russia's powerful media groups while making journalists more accountable to their readers.

But critics say that the bill was so poorly written and is so full of legal loopholes that it would fail miserably to achieve its declared goals. At the same time, they say, it would substantially undermine Russia's 1991 law, which removed the state's grip on the media.

"The Duma thinks that journalists have gone too far, have assumed too much power, and they should be taken in hand or at least annoyed," said Andrei Richter, director of the Center for Law and Mass Media at Moscow State University's School of Journalism.

The new bill was proposed by Communist lawmakers and deputies from Vladimir Zhirinovsky's nationalist faction and earned preliminary approval in January. The Duma set a March 14 deadline for proposed amendments.

Yelena Radnevskaya, a Duma staffer and one of the bill's drafters, said this week that more than 100 proposals have been made. Revisions will be made, she said, but they will not change the substance of the measure. She said it was still unclear when the bill would come up for consideration again.

Under the original version, it would be illegal for banks, foreigners, or anyone with a criminal record to publish newspapers, and Internet web sites would have to be registered and pay taxes.

Another provision would give anyone the right to sue a media organization and demand a correction, even if they were not directly affected by the offending report. Critics say this could cause havoc in the courts.

Even opponents of the legislation agree that some changes to the 1991 law are necessary, but they say the Duma's bill is not the answer.

Richter called some of the provisions legal nonsense.

"It is absolutely clear that the draft was written by journalists or politicians, but not by lawyers," he said this week.

Under the bill, financial groups, banks and "monopolists on goods and services markets" are prohibited from holding television or radio broadcast licenses and publishing mass-circulation newspapers or magazines, or from owning a controlling stake in them.

No one with a broadcast license can control more than one daily newspaper or hold licenses to radio or television stations with broadcast areas overlapping by more than 30 percent.

These provisions would seem capable of breaking up the powerful media groups that are controlled by financial magnates such as Vladimir Gusinsky, Boris Berezovsky and Vladimir Potanin.

The magnates' control over television and newspapers, and their ability to use their media outlets to promote their political agendas, has provoked heated debate and raised questions about freedom of the press.

But Richter said the bill's attempts to break monopolies are naive.

"Gusinsky and Berezovsky can control mass media through intermediaries," he said.

Even today, few of Russia's media organizations are owned directly by a bank or financial-industrial group. Berezovsky formally owns only an 8 percent stake in ORT television, which he is widely believed to control. Gusinsky's Media-MOST company is separate from his MOST Bank.

The bill also has been widely criticized for including "computer information" in the definition of mass media, which would require Internet web sites to become registered and pay taxes just like television stations and newspapers.

The Duma measure would prohibit a newspaper that publishes a correction, as the result of a court decision, from printing its commentary on the dispute in the same issue.

The bill also broadens the grounds for a publication to be suspended or closed down.

Radnevskaya acknowledged that the original version was "raw" and said it would be amended.

The ban on foreign ownership and the Internet regulations were likely to be removed altogether, Radnevskaya said.

But she stood by the legislation's main concepts.

"We have to defend society first of all, and give it the possibility to speak with the press as equals," Radnevskaya said.