In Russia the “war on terrorism” is related to Chechnya and events surrounding it. The first armed conflict in Chechnya in 1994–1996 never got an official legal definition, although the Judicial Chamber for Information Disputes, operating under the President of Russia, once offered an interesting description of that conflict: it was labeled the “armed rebellion.” The current conflict, which started out in the second half of the year 1999, was labeled by Kremlin as “antiterrorist operation” practically from its very beginning, which resulted in certain legal and political consequences.
The authorities counted on mass media and journalists and their understanding and support of the governmental antiterrorist position from the very beginning of the present conflict in Chechnya. In the opinion of authorities, the war on terrorism is more of an ideological, social, and moral phenomenon than a military one. “Therefore, the fight should be adequate: not only forceful, but largely ideological and informational … We must deprive terrorists of the ability to frighten people of our country through mass media. The information on terrorist acts should be presented in the outmost professional manner without unreasonable demonstration of violent scenes.” 1
LAWS RESTRICTING THE FREEDOM OF THE MASS MEDIA
Anti-Terrorism Law (1998 and 2006)
Willingly or not, the government created specific conditions for conducting an anti-terrorist operation well in advance. The federal law “On the Fight against Terrorism” was passed on July 25, 1998 and expanded the boundaries of the notion of “terrorism,” which earlier existed only in the 1996 Criminal Code of the Russian Federation. In the Criminal Code, terrorism is defined as “the committal of explosive devices detonation, arson or any other activity that threats to cause loss of life, significant property damage or other socially-dangerous consequences; if these actions are carried out for the purpose of violation of public security, intimidating the public or influencing government authorities in their decision-making process, as well as a threat of committing the above described actions for the purpose stated” (para 1 of Article 205). The federal law “On the Fight against Terrorism” included this meaning into a wider range of actions, such as the seizure of hostages, dissemination of false facts on a terrorism act, organization of an illegal armed formation or involvement in one, attempts on the lives of statesmen or public figures; attacks on representatives of foreign states or staffers of international organizations who are under the international protection (Art. 3).
In the spring of 2000, this law was shaken the dust off and was referenced to in limiting the freedom of mass media. In March 2000, at the meeting of the Commission on Prevention of Political Extremism, Mikhail Seslavinsky, then First Deputy Minister of Press, Broadcasting and Mass Communications, announced that “in addition to the law “On Mass Media,” there’s also the law “On the Fight against Terrorism,” according to which, from now on, all the journalistic materials on Chechnya are going to be evaluated.” In the authorities’ opinion, Article 15 of this law is related to the mass media as well. Article 15 stated that public distribution of information about terrorism actions must be carried out in the forms and volumes, defined by the Chief of the Anti-Terrorism Operations Center. Aside from that, Article 15 prohibits the dissemination of information that “serves to promote or justify terrorism and extremism.” The Ministry of Press incriminated newspapers “Kommersant” and “Novaya Gazeta” with violation of this article. The editors of these media outlets received official warnings, implying the possibility of discontinuation of these newspapers’ publication.
The blind side of the attempt to apply the federal law “On the Fight against Terrorism” to the Chechen conflict was pointed out by the Moscow Media Law and Policy Institute as early as in March 2001. According to Article 3 (“Basic Terms”) of this law, “a counterterrorist operation zone,” where a specific legal regime is enforced, effective for mass media as well, is “the particular areas of land or water, vehicle, building, structure, installation, or premises and the adjoining territory or waters within which the aforementioned operation is carried out.” Therefore, this limited list implies a territory of a relatively small size. The military, followed by the Ministry of Press, tried to interpret the term “particular areas” in a wider meaning: as a territory of constituent entities of the Russian Federation of more that 10,000 square kilometers (Chechnya). Then, this notion was applied to the Russian Federation as a whole. There are also other ideas casting doubt on the lawfulness validity of the federal law “On the Fight against Terrorism” being applied to journalists, who cover the Chechnya conflict.
Therefore, the case of the Russian Federation’s Ministry of Press charging “Kommersant” and “Novaya Gazeta” with violation of Article 15 of the law “On the Fight against Terrorism” could not be considered legally correct. From the legal standpoint, the only indisputable basis for making such a warning and implying the possibility of these media’s termination of activity (under certain circumstances) was only in violation with Article 4 of the law “On Mass Media” (see below).
On 26 February 2006 the State Duma passed the new version of the statute now titled “On Counter-Action to Terrorism”. Now terrorism shall include promoting terrorist ideas and information support in planning terrorist acts. At the same time most of legally ineffective measures were taken off the bill: the government decided that the provisions of the Statute “On Counteraction to Extremism” (see below) were effective enough for its aims to restrict the media.
Law “On Counteraction to Extremism” (2002)
The statute “On Counteraction to Extremism” was drafted and passed on July 25, 2002 under the initiative of the President of the Russian Federation. In particular, this legal act prohibited mass media from implementing extremism activities and disseminating extremist materials. The law extended such measures of amenability as warnings and termination of activity of mass media if the law is violated. That being said, the focal point here is under what conditions the activities of a mass media outlet can be considered extremist.
According to the law, extremism is defined as a list of actions that are included into the objective side of the constituent elements of a crime, specified by the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation. However, these actions are also accompanied by some new characteristics, such as their connection with violence or exhorts for violence. Extremism includes “activities on planning, organization, preparation and carrying out of actions directed towards violent … breakage of the Russian Federation’s entity, destruction of Russia’s security and safety; take-over or assumption of power, organization of illegal armed formations, and implementation of terrorism activities” as well as some other actions. Hence, these actions characterize the enemy of the state in the Chechnya conflict.
Besides that, the mass media’s dissemination of public exhorts for extremism actions or assistance in their implementation was also determined as extremism activity.
As far as the liability of mass media for dissemination of extremism materials, the law contains serious internal contradictions. According to the law, extremism activities, or dissemination of extremist materials, are punished by issuing a warning to the media outlet or filing a lawsuit, initiated by the governmental agency, against a media organization demanding termination of activity. It is important to point out that in addition the power of issuing warnings and filing legal claims against mass media was given to public prosecutors.
The corresponding changes were made to Articles 4 and 16 of the law “On Mass Media.”
Law “On Mass Media” (1991, as revised in 2006)
The law “On Mass Media” (passed on December 27, 1991) could have played an important role in determining the right balance between freedom of mass media and the war on terrorism.
Article 1 of this law states that after the law is passed, any restrictions or limitations to mass media can be enforced only by the law “On Mass Media.” However, this regulation almost never works, because the priority is given to the legal acts passed later in time - as more recent laws of the same level, or to the federal constitutional laws - as more judicially powerful regulatory legal acts. Thus, there is always a possibility of restricting the freedom of mass media, which was not envisioned in the law “On Mass Media.”
The law “On Mass Media” sets formal procedures of issuing warnings and terminating the activity of a medium. Issuing warnings is one of the several steps of this procedure. The procedure can be carried out by the Federal Service on Supervision Law of Observance in the Sphere of Mass Communications and on Protection of Cultural Heritage at the Ministry of Culture and Mass Communications (before March 2004 - the Ministry of Press, Broadcasting and Mass Communications) and the public prosecutors when there is a violation of Article 4 (“Inadmissibility of Freedom of the Press Abuse”). Usage of mass media for extremist actions implementation is one of the instances of abuse of the freedom of mass media as per the law “On Mass Media,” as revised on July 25, 2002.
During the period of 2006 the above mentioned Federal Service issued 32 official warnings to the print media outlets for violation of anti-extremist statute, an unknown number of warnings have been issued by the prosecutors’ offices.
1 Quoted from the speech presented by Rashid Nurgaliev (Minister of Internal Affairs of Russian Federation) at the meeting with Russian journalists on January 13, 2004. (back to the text)