By a vote of 145 to 1 with two abstentions, the Russian Duma’s upper house, the Federation Council, approved measures that would severely limit reporting of terrorism and anti-terror operations.
The measures would ban the publication, broadcast or Internet posting of any “propaganda or justification” of extremist activity. The media would also be prohibited from distributing information that could undermine counter-terrorist operations, such as revealing “special methods and tactics” used in operations or disclosing information about people involved in them.
Lawmakers say the restrictions, which must receive presidential approval to become a law, seek to deny terrorists a platform to publicize their ideas and to protect authorities during anti-terror operations.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is expected to sign the measures as an anti-terror precaution.
The measures faced weak opposition from lawmakers in the Duma’s lower house, which approved the bill by a 231 to 106 vote on Nov. 1.
Lower house deputy Gennady Raikov, a leader of People’s Deputy — an influential pro-Kremlin group — defended the bill, saying that “if the media popularize extremism in any way, they — wittingly or unwittingly — are plotting a terrorist act.”
Mikhail Fedotov, secretary of the Russian Union of Journalists, approved of the measures, saying, “Lives are more important than the right to information. If you understand that your words could worsen the hostages’ situation, then you should shut up.”
But liberals in the Duma and free-press advocates decried the measures, saying they smacked of censorship. “This is another step aimed at limiting freedom of speech,” liberal Duma member Sergei Yushenkov said.
Shortly before the vote Wednesday, police in Moscow broke up a small demonstration by the liberal Yabloko party, whose leader, Grigory Yavlinsky, has voiced his opposition to the amendments.
“Limiting the possibility for full, objective coverage of such an important topic as the security of the state and its citizens is useful only for bureaucrats who … try to hide their own mistakes and crimes,” Yavlinsky wrote to the Federation Council.
The bill is likely to most dramatically affect news coverage of fighting between the Russian military and separatist rebels in Chechnya — encounters officials consider “counter-terror” operations. Media access there is already restricted.
Mikhail Melnikov, from the Moscow-based media watchdog Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations, described the bill as “a direct act of censorship,” warning that it was too vague and left too much open to interpretation. For example, he said, the bill’s language did not clearly define terms such as “counter-terrorist operation” and “hinder.”
Melnikov said the bill also does not distinguish alleged Chechen separatists from individuals hindering or “justifying resistance to a counter-terrorist operation.”
“That means the military will decide who is hindering,” he said. “This does not correspond to the letter or the spirit of democratic law.”
The Duma’s lower house gave preliminary approval to the measures on Oct. 22 — just one day before some 50 Chechen rebels burst into a popular Moscow theater and took more than 800 people hostage.
The government faced strong international criticism for its tight control of media coverage during the 56-hour hostage standoff, and for its initial secrecy over its use of an opiate gas that killed the Chechen rebels as well as 128 hostages.
On Oct. 25, the Russian Media Ministry shut down Moskoviya television station for its “flagrant violations of the existing legislation” by broadcasting an interview with a hostage who called for an end to the war in Chechnya. The ministry accused Moskoviya of endangering lives of Russian troops and promoting terrorism by broadcasting footage of troops as they surrounded the theater, and for showing a recording from Al-Jazeera with an appeal by the hostage-takers.
The ministry later announced that Moskoviya would be back on the air the following day.
Government officials blocked access to the Web site of Echo of Moscow radio station which posted statements from the hostage-takers. Authorities threatened to shut down the radio station if it continued to publicize statements by the rebels. The station has since removed the interview from its Web site.
Just days after the standoff ended, the Russian Press Ministry sponsored a roundtable meeting with Russian media leaders to formulate press guidelines for coverage of “emergency situations that endanger people’s lives.” The ministry released 16 recommendations that cautioned journalists against interviewing terrorists and revealing sensitive security information, and requested the media to be “prepared to suspend live, on-site broadcasts.”
The ministry reminded journalists that their “obligation is to inform the public, not to sow panic” and that “the international community rejects ties between terrorism and factors of race, religion, and nationality.”
Rustam Arifdzhanov, editor of the Russian Versiya newspaper, agreed that the details of a military counter-terrorism plan should not be revealed during these operations, but he rejected the ministry’s recommendation that the press not analyze or criticize such operations afterwards.
“Special forces exist not for the sake of special forces, but for the sake of society, and it is [the media’s] duty to discuss their performance,” he said in The Moscow Times.
Arifzhanov stressed that the government should make a clear distinction between hostage crises and the war in Chechnya.
The International Federation of Journalists condemned the guidelines, saying the government was trying to interfere with news coverage of Chechen militants.
“The government should keep its hands out of the newsroom,” IFJ General Secretary Aidan White said.
“Media and journalists are only too well aware of the horrifying consequences of terrorism,” White said, “and they don’t need lectures from politicians about how to tailor their coverage to suit the public interest.”