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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Opportunities Lost

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When Russia's media law was passed 15 years ago, ending censorship and granting basic freedoms and independence to journalists, the further expansion of media liberties was expected to make the fourth estate a powerful engine of reform and a watchdog to monitor the government. It is clear today that these hopes largely failed to materialize. International organizations monitoring media freedoms regularly place Russia down low in their country rankings.

The roots of the present situation lie in the mid-1990s, when the brakes were put on further development of legislation. For example, the original mass-media law outlined a future statute on broadcasting to create an independent commission overseeing television and radio. But a number of attempts by the parliament to introduce such a statute were blocked by then-President Boris Yeltsin. As a result these vital media continue to be governed by the executive branch. Broadcast licenses are issued by a body appointed by the Culture and Press Ministry and chaired by the deputy minister, and independent broadcasters are under constant threat of being shut down if they cross boundaries of political decorum and loyalty. Public television remains a distant dream, as ratings and political expediency push educational and children's programming off the airwaves. The introduction of mechanisms to guarantee opposition political parties equal access to airtime mentioned by President Vladimir Putin in last year's state-of-the-nation address likely struck the State Duma as a joke.

The access to information guaranteed by the mass-media law is more often than not barred by governmental officials who are not held responsible for doing this. A bill to increase governmental transparency was thrown out by Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov's Cabinet just last year.

Criminal liability for libel, a legacy of the Soviet past, not only remains in effect but is regularly used by local courts to put bold (and arrogant) journalists behind bars and frighten any others who might be considering the publication of malicious statements concerning public figures. If the criticism is of official ideology, instead of a particular official, a recent federal statute to combat political extremism allows prosecutors to issue an official warning to a news outlet suspected of disseminating "extremist views" and seek a court order to shut down or suspend the operations of the newspaper or broadcaster as well as confiscate any published materials. This statute is used, for example, to punish those who run interviews with Chechen separatists who charge the federal authorities with human rights violations in the region.

Even if the media are balanced and cautious, they still face problems: The overwhelming majority of press outlets are not economically viable because low incomes in the country mean advertising revenues are insufficient. Nonetheless, in 2004 the State Duma withdrew a uniform system of wide-scale mass-media subsidies. As a result, editors and reporters are now more dependent on direct handouts from the government and big business than ever before.

As a full member of the Council of Europe and other international organizations, Russia is bound to meet relatively easily attainable standards of freedom of expression. Many neighboring post-Soviet states that started from the same place have already made enviable headway and most have enacted solid broadcasting laws. States in the Baltics and the Caucasus, as well as Moldova and Kyrgyzstan, introduced public broadcasting systems. National laws have barred governments from running commercial publications. A number of countries junked criminal libel statutes and ended the special state registration required of media outlets as originally established in a 1990 Soviet law. Most of these countries created relatively simple access-to-information laws.

True, the Turkmen model of press freedom is also an option, but it is a poor example for any democracy.

Russia's leaders can ignore the dismal state of press freedoms and the mass media in the country and choose a different approach to development. But this path will lead nowhere. Media globalization and new technologies will sooner or later render strict media controls obsolete. Rather than ending up cornered and almost anathematized among contemporary, civilized politicians, it makes more sense to don the mantle of political reformer and libertarian, as the country's leaders did 15 years ago.

Of course, establishing the legal foundations for a free press by passing new laws cannot in itself guarantee more freedom. The quality and enforcement of the laws are both vital. However, liberal norms adopted by the parliament would mean the establishment of a coherent long-term regime making it easier for journalists to perform their public duties. Hopefully it won't take another 15 years to fill the legal gaps that hinder the development of a free press.

Andrei Richter is director of the Moscow Media Law and Policy Institute and a commissioner of the International Commission of Jurists.