Nizhny Novgorod Oblast has become the source of new initiatives aimed at regulating the activities of media and, in the view of independent observers, of limiting press freedom. Deputies to its legislative assembly have called on the State Duma, the lower house of the Russian parliament, to amend the law so as to allow media to be shut down as a result of a lawsuit by a citizen or a corporation (Russian agencies, February 13).
At present, Article 16 of the Russian law on the mass media states that a media outlet can be closed down only (a) by decision of its founder or (b) by a court order in response to a suit brought by the registering body or the Press Ministry. However an amendment proposed by the speaker of the Nizhegorod Oblast legislature, Dmitry Bednyakov, calls for Article 16 to be amended so as to make it possible for a court to order the closure of a media outlet in response to a suit brought by an individual or a corporation about whom the given medium has more than once over the course of 12 months disseminated information recognized by a court to be false and which besmirches the honor, dignity and business reputation of a citizen or corporation (Lenta.ru, February 13).
Observers do not, however, believe that the Nizhegorod amendment has much chance of being approved. According to Yury Shchekochikhin, deputy chairman of the Duma’s security committee, his committee has already considered the amendment and resolved not to support it, seeing it as “a fresh attack on glasnost [openness] and on the last vestiges of press freedom remaining in the country” (Russian agencies, February 14). Even representatives of the Russian government expressed agreement with this viewpoint, saying the proposed amendment could “completely paralyze the activity of any publication” (Lenta.ru, February 13).
The liberalism of the central authorities is easily explained. The center now has all the means necessary to hinder the activity of any media outlet it considers undesirable. The relatively powerless regional authorities do not however have such power and it is accordingly they who need the Nizhegorod initiative. The passage of this amendment would permit the regional authorities, which already control the judicial systems in their regions, to stamp out criticism in the media in their regions by the simple means of closing them down.
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