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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Media Clampdown Approved by Duma

The State Duma passed in a first reading Friday a bill that would allow courts to close media outlets for publishing libelous statements, a law critics say would give authorities an additional tool to crack down on dissent.

The bill would add "dissemination of deliberately false information damaging individual honor and dignity" to the list of offenses for which a media outlet can be shut down.

Under current law, courts can close media outlets for publishing state secrets, extremist statements and statements supporting terrorism.

The Duma voted 339-1 in favor of the bill, which will now face two more Duma readings before being sent to the Federation Council for consideration. If approved there, it will be passed on to the president to be signed into law.

Friday's reading came two weeks after the tabloid Moskovsky Korrespondent published an article claiming that President Vladimir Putin planned to divorce his wife and marry Olympic champion gymnast Alina Kabayeva. The newspaper suspended operations — for financial reasons, according to its publisher — after Putin dismissed the story as "rubbish."

The bill's author, United Russia deputy Robert Shlegel, said Friday that the bill was drafted before the Moskovsky Korrespondent article and that it was aimed at making Russian media "more civilized."

Shlegel, 24, is a former spokesman for the pro-Kremlin youth group Nashi.

Authorities have initiated numerous libel cases in recent years involving reports about public officials. In one high-profile case, Ivanovo journalist Vladimir Rakhmankov was convicted in October 2006 of publicly insulting a public official and fined 20,000 rubles ($840) for referring to Putin as "a phallic symbol" in an opinion piece.

Oleg Panfilov, head of the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations, said the amendment would give authorities an additional instrument to shut down independent-minded media outlets.

"Now that television and most newspapers are under the Kremlin's control, authorities want to control the very few media outlets that remain free in the country," he said. "There still are a few newspapers — and the Internet — that are out of its control."

Kremlin critics would likely be targeted should the bill become law, Panfilov said. "It would work the same way the law on extremism works, only against those who oppose the powers-that-be," he said. "If [the extremism law] worked properly, many Duma deputies would be in jail for their extremist statements."

Mikhail Fedotov, the secretary of the Russian Union of Journalists and author of the current law on mass media, said it was unnecessary to include the amendment in the media law because libel is already a criminal offense.

"You should then include [in the media law] that you should not encourage murder, rape or theft," Fedotov said, Interfax reported. "In short, the whole Criminal Code. This is just stupid."

Even without the libel amendment, "any word that a governor or mayor doesn't like is considered by courts to be false information, and the paper is simply closed," Fedotov said.