By Gregory Feifer
Moscow, 13 November 2002 (RFE/RL) — Russia’s upper house of parliament today overwhelmingly approved amendments to the country’s media law that would put restrictions on news coverage of antiterrorism operations.
Federation Council members voted 145 to one to pass the new curbs despite protests by free-speech advocates who say the measures could be used to stifle any criticism of the Kremlin.
Federation Council spokesman Valerii Manilov said ahead of the vote that the amendments would “increase the effectiveness of the fight against terror and consolidate our society.” “The amendments pending our approval today draw lines, set limits for today’s informational disorder, and bring about responsibility, not only for journalists who should adequately cover events like the recent tragedy [hostage crisis in Moscow] and the fight against terrorism in general, but also for the authorities and law-enforcement agencies. So it is a mutual responsibility,” Manilov said.
The amendments would bar the media from distributing information that would hinder counterterrorism operations or reveal tactics used in such operations or information about people involved in them.
The measures would also prohibit the publication or broadcast of “propaganda or justification of extremist activity.”
The legislation was drawn up before last month’s crisis in which Chechen rebels took more than 750 hostages in a Moscow theater. At least 128 hostages died during, or later as a result of, a controversial rescue operation.
Officials condemned media coverage of the events, which featured stepped-up news broadcasting and live mobile-telephone conversations with hostages and hostage takers.
Duma Foreign Affairs Committee chief Dmitrii Rogozin told RFE/RL that the media could have jeopardized the operation. “When I saw on NTV television a group of special-operations troops move toward the ‘Nord-Ost’ [theater] building at five [o’clock] in the morning [during the rescue operation], I can imagine that the terrorists could have seen the same thing, which is entirely not right,” Rogozin said.
Liberal politicians and journalists’ advocates meanwhile condemned the new regulations.
Yabloko Party head Grigorii Yavlinskii wrote an open letter to Federation Council Speaker Sergei Mironov criticizing the legislation. “This formulation extends not only to terrorists but to all who allow themselves to criticize the authorities’ actions,” he wrote.
Oleg Panfilov, director of the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations, said the hostage crisis triggered official concern that they would not be able to, as he said, distort the truth. “The authorities adopted changes to the law so quickly and began to talk about the necessity of controlling the press in such crisis situations because they probably became very frightened that journalists can publish information they produced themselves and that contradicts official versions,” Panfilov said.
The government was accused of heavy-handed meddling during the hostage crisis. On the last day of the standoff, the Media Ministry abruptly ordered Moscow’s Channel 3 off the air for 15 hours for allegedly airing possible escape routes for the hostage takers.
The government also threatened to shut down Internet sites and reprimanded a number of newspapers.
The Russian media have seen increasing restrictions since President Vladimir Putin took office in 2000, including the takeover by state-connected organizations of some outlets controlled by Kremlin opposition figures.
Putin, in Brussels on 11 November, lashed out at a French reporter, startling his hosts with crude and angry language in response to a question about government policy on Chechnya.
Putin must now sign the new amendments for them to become law.