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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Slim Chance Cool Heads Will Prevail

Last week the Federation Council approved amendments to Russia's laws on terrorism and the mass media that could lead to significant restrictions on freedom of speech. Saddest of all, the press and the authorities let slip another chance to lay the basis for a civilized relationship. And all they really had to do was stop and think.

Instead, they locked horns again before the shots fired at the Theater na Dubrovke had stopped ringing. The press charged that the authorities had made mistakes, overlooked the obvious and taken action too late. The authorities countered by telling off the foreign press and beating the Russian press over the head with these new amendments.

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Did the authorities deserve criticism? Without doubt. But for the most part, the criticism seemed aimed less at working out what could have been done to prevent the crisis and save lives, and rather more at boosting ratings by trading on tragedy and settling old scores. Did the press deserve to be reprimanded for its antics during the crisis -- for doing things, often on live television, that would be unthinkable in a democratic society? Of course.

Journalists from Russia's leading television and radio stations and newspapers gathered last week at an open committee on media policy at the Soros Foundation to discuss the charges that the government has leveled at the press. But rather than take exception to these charges, the journalists came up with an additional list of violations of journalistic ethics that the government had overlooked.

But why did the government have to act on its legitimate security concerns by ramming a package of crude and extremely careless amendments through the Federal Assembly? You don't have to be a flag-waving supporter of the ways of the Russian media to be horrified by the provisions in these amendments. Not to mention that the government's haste has rendered meaningless the journalistic community's own efforts to bring its practices into line with civilized professional norms.

Just how effective these efforts have been is another question. Press Minister Mikhail Lesin, who attended the Soros Foundation meeting, said that if the press was so concerned about changes in the law it should prove to the government that it will live up to its proclaimed intention to abide by internationally accepted norms of journalistic ethics. As immediately became clear, no one in the media could give such a guarantee. The press doesn't trust itself. It's much easier for the mass media to get into another scuffle with the state than it is for them to reach agreement among themselves.

Unfortunately, last month's terrible tragedy made us no wiser, kinder or more tolerant. We forget that the media and the government are made up of ordinary people who found themselves in an extremely stressful situation during the "Nord Ost" crisis. Does the memory of the dead not require us to work together to learn from our mistakes?

Whatever might have been, the situation now is that the authorities and the press are even more malicious than before. We are caught in a vicious circle: Mistrust begets a lack of professionalism, which in turn inspires mistrust. If a tragedy on the order of the "Nord Ost" crisis has only made us more belligerent, rather than more thoughtful, then I'm afraid we are preordained to live not by social contract, but on the basis of mutual intimidation.

In the short time remaining before President Vladimir Putin signs the new amendments into law, both the press and the government have a slim window of opportunity to act on Lesin's advice.

Alexei Pankin is the editor of Sreda, a magazine for media professionals (www.sreda-mag.ru)