By Laura Belin

Less than a week after Russian security forces stormed a Moscow theater where Chechen rebels were holding more than 700 hostages, the State Duma responded to the crisis by passing several controversial bills. Amendments to the law on the mass media and the law on terrorism narrowly cleared the Duma in their third and final readings on 1 November.

The amendments would limit media coverage in several broad respects. Publishing, broadcasting, or posting on the Internet any “propaganda or justification” of extremism, information about the tactics used in antiterrorism operations, or information about building weapons would be prohibited. More specifically, journalists would be barred from spreading personal information about members of the special services or those assisting them in antiterrorism operations. The 231 deputies who supported the amendments (a Duma majority requires 226 votes) included deputies from most factions: Unity, Fatherland-All Russia, People’s Deputy, Communist, Russian Regions, and the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia.

Many journalists and media watchdogs have expressed concern about how authorities might apply the new amendments. Writing in “Nezavisimaya gazeta” on 5 November, Oleg Panfilov of the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations warned that if a journalist published an article examining the sources of Chechen terrorism, such analysis could be considered to be propagandizing or justifying extremist activities. Panfilov also noted that an amendment prohibiting the media from distributing information about building weapons or explosive devices might force the closure of specialist magazines about guns and the cancellation a television program about the military, which is currently broadcast on state-owned RTR.

In the political arena, reaction was mixed. One defender of the measure, Fatherland-All Russia faction leader Vyacheslav Volodin, argued that “there should be more responsibility in the journalist community,” Channel 3 reported on 1 November. Similarly, Duma Information Committee member Pavel Kovalenko (Unity) told NTV that the amendments will “enable the state to protect itself from the propaganda of violence…and the propaganda of war,” which are already proscribed in Article 4 of the media law.

Media Minister Mikhail Lesin’s comments on the amendments were more circumspect. During the last three years, Lesin’s ministry has led the drive to restrict certain types of coverage of the Chechen conflict, for instance by issuing official warnings to media outlets that have published or broadcast interviews with Chechen leaders. But speaking on Russian Public Television on 1 November, Lesin stressed the need for the journalistic community to adopt its own code of ethics for covering crises related to terrorism. (The Media Ministry has issued its own recommendations for such a code. See “RFE/RL Newsline,” 5 November 2002.)

The 106 Duma deputies who voted against the media-related amendments included members of the Union of Rightist Forces (SPS) and Yabloko factions, who slammed the new restrictions. In an interview published in “Gazeta” on 4 November, SPS leader Boris Nemtsov worried that the changes to the media law would restrict the constitutional right to hold and express an opinion, since those who call for negotiations aimed toward securing the release of hostages could be accused of aiding and abetting terrorists. Sergei Ivanenko (Yabloko) described the new restrictions as another link in authorities’ “managed democracy” project, which will limit citizens’ rights and freedoms, NTV reported on 1 November. Duma Deputy Sergei Yushenkov, co-founder of the Liberal Russia party, told TV-S the same day, “I fear that in passing this law on a sort of emotional wave, we are in the final analysis introducing censorship in our country.”

Though the aftermath of the hostage crisis might have accelerated the final adoption of the amendments to Russia’s media law, it is worth noting that plans to further restrict media coverage of “antiterrorist operations” were under way in the Duma well before the hostage crisis, as ORT television correspondent Olga Kokorekina observed during a 1 November broadcast. Indeed, the Duma approved the amendments to the media law in the second reading on 23 October; Chechen fighters seized the Moscow theater later that evening.

In contrast, another controversial measure recently adopted by the Duma appears to have been hastily drafted following the hostage crisis. Passed in all three readings on 1 November, amendments to the law on terrorism and the law on interment and burial authorize the government not to return the bodies of terrorists to their relatives or to tell families where such bodies have been buried. The amendments were drafted to have retroactive force, so as to apply to the Chechen hostage takers killed in the Moscow theater on 26 October. “Novye izvestiya” commentator Otto Latsis warned on 5 November that the amendments represent “reckless animosity instead of an attempt to understand what happened and anticipate the future” that would assist terrorists’ recruiting efforts in Chechnya and damage Russia’s image abroad.

But inside the parliament, overt opposition to the measure was thin on the ground. According to gazeta.ru, pro-government Duma factions contributed most of the votes in favor of the amendments. Most deputies in the Communist and Agrarian factions did not vote for or against the amendments. Similarly, most members of the Yabloko and Union of Rightist Forces factions declined to participate in the vote on the bill.

(Laura Belin has covered Russian politics and media issues since 1995.)