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Vladimir Putin, available for questions?
Vladimir Putin, available for questions?
Maksim Ivanov

MOSCOW – The Russian government is looking to change the law on mass communications, which could potentially have a serious impact on the way the media does business.

Perhaps the most important proposal put forth concerns who can open and own a media company. Currently, media business owners must be legal adults, cannot be presently serving time in prison or have been declared mentally incompetent by a judge. The government would now like to also permanently exclude from media ownership those who have been convicted at any time of certain crimes against the government or against society.

“There is already a criminal code for criminals. If a person commits a particular crime, he or she should be punished in accordance with the crime. The law on media has nothing to do with that,” said Mikhail Fedotov, the head of the President’s Council on Human Rights and one of the authors of the original media law.

He also noted that this amendment would single out specific kinds of criminals: “Pedophiles would be able to start a media outlet, but those who were convicted of crimes relating to the protests against Putin in 2012 would not.”

“It’s discriminatory,” said Igor Yakovenko, the former secretary of the Journalists’ Union. “At the same time, it doesn’t really matter, because a person can easily create a corporation and use that corporation to start a media outlet.” He added that one of the things the original law gets right is the ease with which someone can register a media outlet.

Did you say "fax machine"?

At the same time, this new law will also make it easier to close down regional news organizations. The way the law stands now, if regional authorities want to close down a media outlet, they have to bring the case in front of a national court. Now, the Ministry of Comminication wants to change that, making it possible to close regional outlets in regional courts. Fedotov says that the original requirement was to prevent local authorities from ruling with tyranny. Yakovenko says that allowing regional courts to close down media outlets will decrease the public profile of cases of media closure.

There is one additional, seemingly meaningless change to the media law that would amend a prohibition on "propaganda for the cult of violence and cruelty" to be a prohibition against "propaganda for violence and cruelty."

“You could prohibit basically anything under this rule,” Fedotov said.

Even the term "cult of violence and cruelty" is an outdated term, coming from the Soviet criminal code, which prohibited violent Western movies – having a videotape of “Terminator,” for example, would have been illegal. Since the whole principle has been removed from the criminal code, it seems strange to keep in the media laws, Fedotov says.

The last part of the amendments would require media outlets to clearly publish their contact information, including a fax number. Yakovenko says this, instead, is a blatently absurd requirement, because it forces media outlets to have a completely unnecessary piece of equipment. And yet, if the media outlet is audited and doesn’t have a fax machine, it could be an additional excuse for government punishment.

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