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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

New Body to Monitor Coverage of Duma Vote

The Central Elections Commission is creating a special media monitoring body for the upcoming State Duma and presidential elections, raising fears of increased control over media already perceived to be under the state's thumb.

Five staff members will report the publication of any extremist material, illegal agitation and mudslinging, commission spokesman Yevgeny Kochubei said Monday.

President Vladimir Putin has on numerous recent occasions addressed the need to fight extremism, which critics say is the Kremlin's term for dissent.

Kochubei dismissed suggestions that the body could attempt to control the media. "They will only monitor the situation," he said in a telephone interview.

The body will be part of the newly formed Instruction Center for Election Technologies, headed by Alexander Ivanchenko, former head of the Central Elections Commission. Kochubei said that the Center will have a staff of around 20 and start working in the near future, although he would not give a precise date.

The monitoring should simply help to understand election results better, said Ivanchenko.

"Any party's professional input to advertising and media coverage will have tangible results in its showing in the elections," he was quoted as saying Monday by Interfax. The monitoring, he said, was supposed to help to illustrate why parties failed to achieve forecast results.

Ivanchenko stressed that the body did not have the ability to punish those in violation.

"Over the space of the next month we should be increasingly able to collect information, but there will be absolutely no sanctions on access to air time, because there is no legal basis for this," he was quoted as saying.

But Ivanchenko also hinted that he would distinguish sharply between pro-Kremlin and opposition media.

"We will try to classify each publication's character -- whether it is positive, negative and in favor of which parties and candidates," he said in an interview published Monday in Nezavisimaya Gazeta. "There is nothing wrong with that."

Observers questioned whether a body with just five members would be able to exert much effective control over the entire media sector, thought to comprise more than 30,000 newspapers and countless television stations.

But pundits said this task was already essentially being performed by the Kremlin.

"Given the restrictions over the media, the amount of publications that still need extra control is pretty small," said Glasnost Defense Foundation president Alexei Simonov. "I think, five people can deal with that."

In a sign that media election coverage is closely followed by the authorities, city prosecutors in April confiscated material from Ekho Moskvy connected to an interview on the radio station with Eduard Limonov, the former leader of the banned National Bolshevik Party.

Station editor Alexei Venediktov told the Gazeta daily that transcripts of the interview had been sent to investigators attempting to determine whether the station broke any laws by airing the interview with Limonov, a Kremlin critic whose banned National Bolshevik Party was dismantled by the courts on charges of spreading extremist ideology.