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Thursday, September 07, 2006

The Extremism Law Exposed as Neo-Soviet Censorship

The Moscow Times offers a column from Mikhail Fedotov, secretary of the Russian Union of Journalists and one of the authors of the federal media law, obliterating the obscene Russophile canard (propagated most especially by the nefarious Yuri Mamchur of Russia Blog) that Russia's new law on extremism is a reasonable measure designed to guard against racism.

The author Vasily Grossman once said the hardest problems always generate the simplest and most incorrect solutions. Amendments to the federal media law and administrative code introduced as measures to combat terrorism, which go before the State Duma for a first reading Wednesday, contain a definition of "extremism" that expands the term to the point of absurdity. This in a country where official reaction to real acts of violence against individuals based on their racial, ethnic, linguistic, religious or social backgrounds is rare and selective.

The broader the definition of extremism, the easier it is for the authorities to use it against anyone who has displeased them. The latest amendments define it as "infringing on the rights and freedoms of a citizen or citizens or doing damage to the health and/or property of citizens on the basis of their convictions, racial or ethnic affiliation, creed, social affiliation or social origin."

Translated from legalese, almost any derogatory article can now be interpreted as extremism if the author cannot prove that a statement corresponds strictly to reality. Thus, journalists will need the investigative authority of a prosecutor and faith that a voice recording (which they had better have) will be enough against a high-placed crooked official.

This legal novelty has drawn scant attention from commentators. Everyone has been talking about the fact that the anti-extremism law passed earlier this year includes "the public defamation of any government official" in the definition. The first application of this legal novelty was against Viktor Shmakov, the editor of Provintsiyalniye Vesti, a newspaper in Bashkortostan. He was charged after the publication of the articles "Experienced advice. Instructions for the Behavior of Revolutionaries During Mass Popular Demonstrations" and "The Bashkir Revolutionary Committee Short Program of Emergency and Frontline Measures For the First 100 days After the Revolution."

Shmakov shouldn't be worried, however, as the defamation of officials must be, according to the law, established by the courts. The Criminal Code does not as yet contain such an article.

But this loophole will undoubtedly be closed. Criticizing the authorities will be defamation, and defamation will be extremism. And, according to the new amendments, any media outlet can be closed down for acting as the "cause of damage to the person or health of citizens, the environment, public order, public safety, property or the legal economic interests of individuals or legal entities, society or the state." This net is wide enough to snare just about anyone, especially if those doing the fishing are acting on personal interests and the victim has only the Constitution and the European Court of Human Rights on his or her side.

What is important is that we don't confuse extremism with opposition, criticism, or dissent -- even when these are expressed in extreme terms. Established democracies long ago not only stopped punishing dissent, but also those who promoted it. Those statutes that do remain long ago became dead law. In British law, for example, "incitement to mutiny" remains a serious crime, but since 1945 has been interpreted to cover actions designed to provoke social unrest and civil disobedience with the aim of disrupting the government's legal functioning and has not been invoked since 1947.

French legislation still includes an 1881 statute that criminalizes defamation of a state institution, minister, lawmaker or civil servant. But this law also has not been applied in practice for decades and, in effect, has lost its power. This is the result of the simple fact that these societies now look differently on criticism and interpret freedom of speech more broadly.

All of this has to be balanced against matters of necessity in a Russia where extremism, and ethnic hatred in particular, have clearly become a reality. Horrific events like the murder of a 9-year-old Tajik girl or a Peruvian student in St. Petersburg, or the recent bombing of Moscow's Cherkizovsky market can no longer be dismissed as isolated incidents. Political discussion is rife with conspiracy theories that nationalist groups like the White Patrol and the Movement Against Illegal Immigration are just parts of a highly clandestine extremist nationalist organization seeking to take power. Implicit in these theories is the prescription that only a powerful Kremlin can stop this absolute evil from triumphing.

Unfortunately, it doesn't look like law enforcement or security bodies are serious about countering the real growth of extremism in the country. Law-enforcement agencies are themselves hotbeds of xenophobia. A nationwide survey by the Levada Center polling agency said 40 percent of police officers supported the idea that Russia should be a country for ethnic Russians, while 67 percent expressed negative views about people from the Caucasus and Central Asia.

Moreover, state officials still frivolously label extremist acts as simple hooliganism or the escapades of madmen. Statements from the top addressing the issue seriously are interpreted further down the "power vertical" as necessary rituals, but little else. "We know very well all of those who should be [behind bars], and it would only take a couple of days to haul them all in," a friend in law enforcement told me recently. "But nobody seems to be interested in this."

So a vicious circle is forming. The authorities refuse to take systemic corrective action against the growing problem of extremism in society, preferring instead to use it as a pretext for maniacally plugging any cracks through which free thought could have an influence on the political process. In turn, the deliberate undermining of democratic institutions fans extremism further, as it does not allow outlets for protest or opposition on the field of normal political competition. The authorities could still break this vicious circle. The question is whether they have the will, ability or time.

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