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Constitutional Court To Decide Freedom of Speech Issue

A group of deputies dispute the legal formulation of pre-election agitation

On October 17th 1905 Tsar Nikolas II signed a manifesto to strengthen state order. The manifesto proclaimed civil freedoms (personal immunity, freedom of speech, associations and assemblies) and the convocation of the State Duma. Much has happend since then. Russia has survived two revolutions (in February and in October 1917), two wars (the civil war and the Great Patriotic War), Khruschev's thaw, Brezhnev's big sleep, Gorbachev's perestroika, the collapse of the Soviet Union, Yegor Gaidar's market economy and the financial default in 1998.

The above-mentioned things have become the historic eras of the Russian history. One may evaluate them from different points of view, but one cannot forget them. History might repeat itself otherwise. The founder of scientific socialism used to say: "History repeats itself twice: at first as a tragedy, and then as farce." For the sixth or for the 56th time, history repeats itself as unbelievable marasmus. This can be applied to the freedoms granted by Nikolas II. Ninety-eight years later, a group of deputies applied to the Constitutional Court to determine if freedom in speech exits in Russia.

Four inquiries have been submitted to the Russian Constitutional Court this year. The claimants dispute four paragraphs of point two of article 48 of the Law "About Basic Guarantees." The mentioned paragraphs define pre-election agitation as follows: "the distribution of the information about candidates," "the distribution of the information about candidate's activities not connected with his professional activities," "the activities assisting in the creation of a positive or a negative attitude of the electorate to a candidate, an association or a bloc," "other activities to encourage the electorate to vote for candidates or against them." In addition, the claimants dispute several other paragraphs of the law.

The inquiries have been actively discussed in the media, but nobody knew when they were to be discussed - before or after the elections? There was a hope that the Constitutional Court would decide to consider them as soon as possible, but the Central Electoral Committee does not support this position. Alexander Veshnyakov, the committee's head, attempted to press the court. Having learnt of the inquiries, the official said that the Constitutional Court would not be considering them during the election campaign.

At present, the law views any newspaper article as political agitation, if an article discusses politicians' ratings, for instance. Chapter VII of the law says that only registered candidates or groups may have a right for agitation in mass media. Thus, any television channel or any newspaper may violate the law if they retell or reprint the press-release from the central Electoral Committee.

Duma deputies have expressed a number of opinions on the electoral law. Boris Nadezhdin from the Union of Rightist Forces stated that the inquiries submitted to the Constitutional Court were not part of the pre-election campaign. The deputy said that "it touched upon all elections which take place in the country constantly." According to Nadezhdin, the above-mentioned paragraphs of Article 48 "imply optional interpretation and ambiguity."

Nadezhdin's colleague from the faction, Alexander Kotyusov, said that there were many ridiculous and sad examples to show how the article is used in real life. The regional electoral committee in the city of Tula, for instance, verbally warned the newspaper Molodoy Kommunist. As it was said, State Duma deputies Alexander Korzhakov and Elena Drapeko had been called "general" and "actress" respectively (they are the general and the actress, but these words are considered to be a subtle agitation element). A Kaliningrad-base newspaper was warned for the following phrase: "Aleksey Yushenkov – the son of the assassinated State Duma deputy Sergey Yushenkov." Attorney Pavel Astakhov who defends the interests of one of the authors of the inquires stated: "The elections conducted under the total ban imposed on any information, except for the information distributed by the candidates, cannot be considered as democratic elections." 

Constitutional Court's chairman Valery Zorkin stated the decision of the court would specify all formulations in question. "The explanation of the law is the maximum that we can accomplish.  If the Constitutional Court says that the Law "About Mass Media" is more important for journalists than the Law "About Basic Guarantees" from the point of view of the Constitution, we will be satisfied. In this case, journalists will be given an opportunity to analyze the events normally and they will not have to fear that they will be called into criminal account for it."

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