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Wednesday, January 17, 2007

On Russia's Doomed Media Establishment

Writing in Vedomosti and republished in the Moscow Times Mikhail Fedotov, the head of Russia's UNESCO intellectual property department and the secretary of the Russian Union of Journalists, documents the dark days of neo-Soviet media in Russia:

The fact that Old Russian New Year and National Media Day both fall on Jan. 13 is no coincidence. It is deeply symbolic. On the day before passing a new mass media law in December 1999, the Russian Supreme Soviet chose the day because it was the date of the first edition of the newspaper Vedomosti in 1703.

The date for the old holiday, May 5, was problematic, as Russian journalism was born long before Pravda and it was the creators of that very paper that had destroyed freedom of the press in Russia. The new holiday was not to signify the party orientation of the media, but their freedom and independence.

Later, in the 1990s, the authorities started to get friendly with the press. It teamed up with it against the Soviet regime, then in support of reforms and, finally, simply out of habit. "Be honest and open," President Boris Yeltsin told a news conference in June 1993. "Remember that freedom originates in the freedom of the press. It is no exaggeration that the freedom of our society depends on it."

Whether or not Yeltsin believed what he said, the generous gestures with which the authorities treated journalists and, therefore, newspaper readers, television viewers and radio listeners were grounds for optimism: the passage of a mass media law that was "one of the most liberal in the world"; a professional holiday accompanied by bonuses, grants, honors and titles; direct subsidies for the press, including private and even opposition outlets; tax, customs and other privileges for all media outlets except those devoted to erotica and advertising; and preferential treatment for editorial staff in the privatization of printing and publishing assets.

This, alas, is all in the past. What is left is a mass media law reminiscent of a shot up flag still flying over a buckling, but not yet broken barricade. Journalists still get bonuses and grants, and those receiving them deserve them, no doubt, but you won't find among them any uncompromising critics of the regime.

Government agencies remain involved in the media sphere and, as was the case before, they often have little idea of what they are doing. The new facts of life require a change in name, so the State Inspectorate for the Protection of the Freedom of the Press is now the Federal Service for Media Law Compliance and Cultural Heritage. You might take from this that freedom of the press is now protected as part of cultural heritage, though it would never occur to a journalist to seek the help of the service when their rights, as enshrined in the media law, are violated by governors, mayors and the police, or the founders, editors or distributors of their publications.

But there is still much in the media law that is worth fighting for and it would be a mistake not to focus on the service if its very function is to monitor compliance with media law.

The media law is our proud and tattered flag. Last year, it was it was used for the fight against extremism and terrorism.

First of all, the definition of extremist activities was broadened. In fact, it was broadened beyond reasonable limits and to the point that it drew the attention of the Federation Council. Nonetheless, nothing was done to correct the mistake.

Second, some of the provisions from existing anti-terrorism law and governing coverage were forced into the new measure. This was taken to such an extreme that any media outlet can be closed not only if one of its journalists breaks the rules set out to regulate coverage of counter-terrorist operations, but even if no regulations for the gathering of information were defined by the head of the operation in question.

Another danger from the legislative side is the toughening of a number of measures regarding coverage of the upcoming State Duma election. The prohibition of criticism of opponents on television by candidates and their agents, using a measure in the 2003 law that allows the suspension of broadcasts by repeat offenders vis-a-vis election law, is still feasible.

This could all simply end up in the Constitutional Court. In the fall of 2003, the court agreed that all investigations in such cases should be carried out after elections had been completed, laying out quite clearly and firmly the regulations in play concerning basic guarantees of voters' rights. "Activities not intended to induce voters to vote for or against a particular candidate, meaning that they are not designed to affect the concrete results of the election, cannot be considered pre-election campaigning," the court ruled. This precludes legal responsibility on the part of journalists and editors, but this ruling was handed down almost four years ago.

The wonderful gift to voters for this year's holiday was a new article in the Civil Code, No. 1521, which calls for the protection of people's images. Coming on the heels of hysterical calls for photographers to be prohibited from taking pictures even of show business stars without their agreement because they feel they are in a compromising position, poor company or simply having a bad makeup day, the Duma's new proposal is unlikely to shock admirers of self-censorship. There were three general exceptions to the prohibition against using photos or video of someone without his or her agreement, the most important of which states that permission is not necessary if "the image used is of state, social or some public interest." Therefore, if you publish a photograph of a famous artist in a newspaper, for example, this is legal. If you put it on a product package, however, it is outside the law.

But the exception shouldn't lead us to get happy prematurely. Don't forget that the Culture and Press Ministry has embarked on preparing a collection of changes to media law to be submitted for government consideration in the first quarter of 2007. A version of the proposals I saw one year ago put everything clearly enough: "It is necessary to review the state of laws regulating the responsibilities of news outlets, strengthen the procedures for the accreditation of such outlets and in the general principles and regulations concerning the activities of media representatives in the event of terrorist acts and counter-terrorist operations. New types of mass media like web sites must be regulated, and current market conditions should be addressed in the strengthening of regulations governing the concentration of mass media assets."

In other words, we're talking about a fundamental reform to media law. The question is: Why is this necessary if the president is praising the old law and the deputy prime minister has not only promised loudly not to touch it, but also to defend it in every possible way. We all know that the draughts in the corridors of power shift quickly. So my advice to journalists is even if roses are growing on Moscow's streets tomorrow, it would be best to dress warmly and not forget to wear your galoshes. The election is approaching, fast.

Perhaps the only comforting note is an initiative proposed by the St. Petersburg Union of Journalists and supported by Governor Valentina Matviyenko, which would provide reporters working in the field with special vests with the word "Press" on them in two languages, so that it is perfectly clear to police breaking up the latest demonstration that they are beating up journalists. After all, if you don't know your enemy by his face, it helps if you can identify him by his vest.

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