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The Russian State Duma and the Federation Council have approved amendments to the law “On Mass Media,” which will define in greater detail the procedure by which television and radio channels are licensed. It will also give Web sites the right to receive legal status as mass media. But critics say that the law will not solve the problem of media monopolization in Russia and could restrict press freedom.
Introducing amendments to Russia’s media law has proved difficult in recent years. An earlier draft of the current proposals was roundly criticized in the Russian Federation’s Public Chamber for being amateurish and crudely written. “There was a lot of confusion over names and definitions [in the draft]. Such amendments discredited the law on mass media. But later the authors of the draft agreed with most of our comments and proposals and changed the text,” said Pavel Gusev, chairman of the Committee on Communication, Information Policy and Freedom of the Press at the Public Chamber.
Debate on how to legislate the media has raged in Russia for many years. The current law was developed in 1991, and did not take into account the Internet and digital television. Since then, the number of registered media outlets in the country has also increased to 93,000, including 27,000 print media outlets and 330 television channels. Russia has the largest number of journalists in the world (more than 100,000), followed by China and the United States.
Despite the preponderance of newspapers, television stations and other media outlets, however, Russian media, especially television, is still largely dominated by a state monopoly, according to experts. In 2010, Russia ranked 140th out of 178 countries on the Press Freedom Index, a report compiled by Reporters Without Borders, a non-profit organization that opposes censorship and laws that undermine press freedoms. In comparison, Ethiopia ranked 139th, and Afghanistan, 147th.
Russia is also home to more than 4.5 million Russian-language Web sites and over 5 million Russian-language blogs. Many of them produce content which competes on a similar level to traditional media, although they do not have the same legal status. A survey conducted by the Public Opinion Foundation (FOM) found that one in four respondents aged 18-24 trust unofficial sources of information on the Internet more than traditional mass media.
“The current law on mass media passed in 1991 has both advantages and disadvantages. It is not ideal, and causes some problems in legal practice. However, practical decisions on how to solve these problems have been found since then. Doubtless, the new draft will generate new challenges,” said Vadim Kolosov, a lawyer and member of the UNESCO Chair on Copyright and Other Intellectual Property Rights in Russia.
“For example, some experts believe that the amendments might become controversial issues, which would provide an opportunity to regulate content on the Internet, especially television and radio broadcasts. Moreover, the proposed regulations may be interpreted as a significant limitation to foreign media broadcasting,” he added.
According to the draft, foreign TV and radio channels will only be able to broadcast in Russia if they are registered as a legal entity in Russia. They should apply for a license and hire staff for Russian-based offices to produce content on location. After registering, foreign channels would work under the same regulations as Russian mass media and they would be responsible for their content under Russian law.
Meanwhile, Russia signed the European Convention on Transfrontier Television in 2006. This document allows all member states of the convention to rebroadcast all programs which meet the convention’s rules (limited advertisement time, youth protection from violence and pornography etc.) across Europe. Implementation of obligatory licensing for foreign television channels may infringe the principles of freedom of expression, reception, and retransmission which are a fundamental part of the convention.
Another controversial aspect of the amendments is the legal status of Web sites. Authors of the draft initially proposed compulsory registration of Web sites as media outlets. But after the project was criticized, this was changed to voluntary registration. Experts doubt that most Web site owners would be interested in such registration.
“On the one hand, the status of mass media has some advantages, such as the opportunity to request and collect information and receive official recognition. But on the other hand, it imposes some limitations, such as registration, structuring operations, legal implementation and increased responsibility. Everybody should decide for themselves what is more important depending on the project,” Kolosov said.
Pavel Gusev describes amendments to the media law as single-purpose. “These proposals are mostly focused on licensing and registration issues. But professionals in the field of mass media know about the existence of an alternative project – a draft media law developed by Mikhail Fedotov [chairman of the Presidential Council for the Promotion of Civil Society Institutions and Human Rights] which offers a new and modern approach to media regulation. It is really great,” he said.
In fact, the draft by Fedotov is very different from both the current law and from the proposed amendments. It includes sections on prohibiting censorship, preventing monopolization of the media market and combating abuse of press freedoms as well as advertizing regulations and transfrontier broadcasting and many other important issues, which meet the challenges facing today’s media.
What is particularly important is that this draft introduces legal responsibility for limiting press freedoms, including censorship and violating journalists’ rights.
“This draft went through a preliminary hearing in the State Duma, but nobody knows when it will come up for debate. If it was approved it would be great,” Gusev said.
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