Russia should reject recriminalizing libel, says OSCE media freedom representative

The OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Dunja Mijatović, expressed her disappointment today with the adoption in a first reading by the Russian State Duma of draft amendments reinstating libel provisions in the Criminal Code, and urged parliamentarians to reject the bill.

This move to recriminalize libel is unfortunate particularly because only seven months ago I welcomed Russia’s decision to do away with criminal libel and insult to liberate journalists from fear when they criticize public officials,” said Mijatović.

In November 2011, Russia became the 14th OSCE participating State to do away with criminal defamation laws when the State Duma agreed to decriminalize libel and insult. In her statement on 17 November 2011, Mijatović welcomed this “landmark” decision.

“I call on the members of the Duma to reject the bill and stop initiatives aimed at criminalizing the content of public discussions,” she said.

“Furthermore, Russia’s civil and administrative codes are sufficient tools to protect reputations from media ‘attacks’.”

The bill was introduced just last Friday by the ruling United Russia party. Two more readings are expected in the State Duma before the end of this week; the law would come into force with approval by the Federation Council and promulgation by the President.

The draft amendments allow for sentences involving imprisonment of up to five years and a fine for moral damages up to 500,000 rubles (12,500 euros) for those found guilty of libel. The draft envisages tougher administrative sanctions for insult. The bill also increases the penalty for violation of privacy from six months to five years of imprisonment, which cannot but serve the purpose of a cold shower effect for the independent media.

“The recriminalization of defamation in Russia runs against the overall trend in the OSCE region to decriminalize speech offenses. Seven countries have made this important step towards more media freedom since 2009. In the Western democracies, criminal defamation laws still exist on the books but they are not applied against media in practice,” said Mijatović.

“I call on all OSCE participating States that have not decriminalized defamation yet to do so as quickly as possible to end the chilling effect of such laws on media freedom.”

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