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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Putin Wants Chamber to Watch Press

President Vladimir Putin has sent a bill to the State Duma that would empower the Public Chamber to act as a media watchdog.

The nascent Public Chamber is supposed to keep an eye on civil society, and most of its members are expected to be Kremlin loyalists.

Putin's bill consists of amendments to the law on the Public Chamber and would allow the body to determine whether officials violate speech freedoms and report violations to law enforcement agencies, the Kremlin said in a statement announcing the submission of the bill to the Duma on Wednesday.

Under the bill, the chamber would also decide whether news organizations unfairly deny equal access to "various political forces" and report incidences to offending organizations or law enforcement agencies, the Kremlin said.

The 126-member chamber, which must be fully staffed by the end of the year, can only make recommendations.

Putin last month appointed the chamber's first 42 members, a mix of religious leaders, doctors, journalists, athletes, artists and businessmen who are largely his loyalists. Notably absent from the group were human rights activists, many of whom have criticized the Public Chamber as democratic window-dressing meant to legitimize authoritarian Kremlin policies.

If the bill were approved, the chamber's new powers would prove largely useless, said Alexei Simonov, head of the Glasnost Defense Foundation. "Such bodies don't have any prospects because of one reason: There's no one to listen to their recommendations," he said. "Our country is organized in such a way that it's only worth giving recommendations to the president, but ... he has lots of other things on his mind."

Journalists who want to defend their rights go to court and they will continue to do so regardless of any option to have the chamber look into their cases, Simonov said.

He said that if the goal of the bill were to encourage free speech, the Kremlin could better accomplish that by ending its control of news on national television channels.

State Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov, who heads the pro-Kremlin United Russia party, insisted Thursday that news media were free. "I don't see a problem," he said when asked about freedom of speech, Interfax reported.

Yelena Zelinskaya, a Public Chamber member and vice president of the Media Union, a pro-Kremlin group, said Putin was right to offer media oversight rights to the chamber. The chamber's recommendations could carry authority because they would reflect the opinion of all of civil society, she said.

"The main thing is how authoritative the Public Chamber will become," she added.

Vyacheslav Nikonov, a chamber member and head of the Politika Foundation, said the chamber would be an additional organization that new media or reporters could turn to for help, in addition to their trade organizations.

By law, Putin's 42 appointees to the chamber must select another 42 members from national nongovernmental and nonprofit organizations. Those two groups will then choose the final 42 members from regional NGOs.