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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Lesin Attacks CEC on New Press Rules

Press Minister Mikhail Lesin spoke out Monday against the Central Election Commission, saying that if it stuck to its interpretation of new restrictions on media coverage during the election campaign, many news organizations would simply have to shut down.

"The Central Election Commission's attempt to put limitations on the media concerning information about the activities of different candidates registered in the elections does not conform to the letter or the spirit of the law," Lesin said in an interview to Interfax.

He said the law distinguishes between campaigning and informing the voters. "If the professional or official activities of famous people, businessmen or artists -- even if they are registered as candidates in the elections -- are covered by the media, this cannot be considered campaigning," Lesin said. "Otherwise newsrooms would have to shut down their news departments for some months, and other [media] shut down their business in general."

In June, parliament passed amendments to the media law that would punish news organizations that support one candidate over another, criticize a candidate's position or report critically on topics not related to a candidate's professional duties.

Lesin appeared to be responding to Sergei Bolshakov, a member of the CEC and an author of the amendments, who gave an interview to Nezvismaya Gazeta explaining how the new rules should be applied.

Bolshakov said journalists should only inform readers or viewers, but not offer any analysis of events. As an example, he cited the case of a candidate promising free apartments if he or she wins the election. Journalist can write about it, but they cannot mention, say, that the same candidate also promised free apartments in the last election and failed to deliver. "This is not information, but this is your analysis and it is not appropriate as information," he was quoted as saying in Monday's paper.

Under the law, journalists have to provide the same coverage to all candidates. Bolshakov gave this example to explain how he thinks this provision should be interpreted:

"Three candidates arrived in city N, and they had three meetings with their supporters in different parts of the city. You [journalists] don't have the right to write a long story about one of the candidates and not mention the other two."

Lesin said his ministry is aware that the activities of some candidates will be covered more than those of others, but this is not grounds to intervene in editorial policy.

Under the law, if a media outlet commits two violations during a single election campaign, a federal or regional election commission can file a complaint with the Press Ministry calling for its suspension for the duration of the campaign. Only a court, at the ministry's request, can decide to suspend a media organization.

The amendments to the media law were aimed at bringing it into conformity with a law on voters' rights passed in 2002, which prohibits campaigning that is not paid for with official campaign funds.

During the official campaign period, which begins 100 days before election day, all political activities concerning parties as well as individual candidates will be considered campaigning.

Igor Yakovenko, head of the Union of Journalists, said the amendments are absurd because "only those who are taking part in an election are allowed to speak about it. But experts and journalists -- who are the only ones that can objectively speak about it -- are not."

He said Lesin's comments might help prevent harsh application of the law. "Both bureaucrats from the Central Election Commission and those working in the courts will understand how the law could be dangerous, and they will not try to use it in a tough way," Yakovenko said.

Oleg Panfilov, the director of the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations, said Lesin's criticism was too little too late. "Lesin is speaking only now that the amendments already have been approved," Panfilov said. "When they were being discussed he didn't say anything."