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Russia’s High Court Confirms Media’s Free Speech Rights During Elections

The Russian Federation Constitutional Court ruled on Thursday that certain media restrictions were unconstitutional because they could be “broadly interpreted” and could lead to violations of the freedom of the mass media and the electoral rights of citizens.

The amendments, adopted in June, prohibited journalists from appearing to support one candidate or party over another, criticizing a candidate’s policies, or reporting on a candidate’s private activities. Furthermore, any news outlet that violated the restrictions could be prosecuted under the new amendments.

In its ruling, the high court sided with a group of journalists and over 100 lawmakers who earlier this month appealed the amendments, which they said unlawfully deprived voters of the right to the freedom of expression and speech, as well as the right to information, which they said was crucial for making educated decisions about the candidates.

The pro-Kremlin United Russia party did not join in the appeal.

Three journalists — Sergei Buntman of Ekho Moskvy radio station, Konstantin Katanyan of the Rodnaya Gazeta weekly and Kaliningrad Konstantin Rozhkov of the Svetlogorye newspaper — contended the media restrictions would unfairly limit coverage of opposition candidates, and would punish any news organizations for elections coverage since almost any reporting could be interpreted as political.

“Journalists do not do arithmetic, but objectively cover the events of the election period,” Katanyan told First Channel television.

The Constitutional Court struck down a provision banning the dissemination of propaganda, saying it was too vague and could be arbitrarily applied and interpreted.

The court introduced criterion to distinguish between propaganda and reporting. Reports can be called propaganda if the courts find evidence of a journalist’s direct intent or premeditation. Otherwise, a journalist and news outlets cannot be held responsible for the positive or negative assessments of any politicians in the course of the electoral campaign.

“Elections can be free only when freedom of information and the citizens’ free expression of their will are assured,” Constitutional Court Chairman Valery Zorkin told the Russian Gazeta newspaper.

“The positive or negative opinion of some candidates is not part of an election campaign and can’t be a ground for bringing media representatives to administrative account,” Zorkin added.

However, several media analysts cautioned that the remaining provisions were still too ambiguous, and gave authorities enough leeway to selectively target media organizations.

“Some of the points are still vague, this decision limits the ability of the electoral commission to interpret the law however it wants, but it is still able to interpret it,” Andrei Rikhter of the Media Law and Policy Institute told Reuters Thursday.

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