In any other week, the surprising verdict delivered by Russia's Constitutional Court last Thursday would have topped the headlines. By striking down parts of a law that had been designed to hamstring coverage of political campaigns, the high court gave the nation's beleaguered media a boost and a reminder that not everyone has forgotten about constitutionally guaranteed freedoms. Alexei Simonov, director of the Glasnost Defense Foundation, a media-rights group in Moscow, hailed the decision as "the highest example of common sense, which seldom exists in today's Russia."
On paper, it seemed a major blow for Vladimir Putin's government, which has methodically chipped away at the media's independence. Russia no longer has an independent national TV network, and Reporters Without Borders ranks the country second-worst in Europe for press freedom, after Belarus. The nixed clause, from a 2002 voters' rights law, prohibited "campaigning" in the media "any action, inducing or trying to induce voters to vote for [or against] candidates or lists of candidates." Opponents of the law said the definition could cover almost any article with any information, positive or negative, about any candidate or party. The unpopular clause even divided the Kremlin. Press Minister Mikhail Lesin publicly criticized the Central Election Commission after one of its members said that, according to the CEC's interpretation, a news organization's "analysis ... is not appropriate as information" and warned the media to stick to reporting.
After the law came into effect over the summer, several media outlets and journalists filed legal protests, including the radio station Ekho Moskvy and a Kaliningrad reporter whose paper was fined after he wrote that a local Duma candidate was the son of a slain former Duma deputy. (The detail was deemed unacceptable because it was unrelated to the candidate's work.) Appeals were also lodged by a motley coalition of Duma members more than 100 Communists, populists and liberals who feared the media's silencing in the run-up to December's parliamentary elections. Alexander Barannikov, a leader of the anti-Putin Union of Right Forces, said simply that the law was "against the Russian Constitution."
The court agreed. In its decision, it wrote that the clause "limits the freedom of public information." Chairman Valery Zorkin defended the right to editorialize, arguing that presentation of a "positive or negative opinion ... cannot be grounds for bringing media representatives to administrative account."
But what is this victory really worth? The court voided one subclause in one law, but it cannot erase the record of the government. Nor can it force a reporter or a radio station to exercise its freedom. Campaigning for the December Duma elections officially begins this week, giving the media its first chance to show its mettle. "In this climate of dampening or silencing a wide range of opinions, what will people do?" wonders Ellen Mickiewicz, a Russian media expert at Duke University, who points out that, with all that he has already done to stifle the media, Putin "doesn't need this law."
The Glasnost Foundation's Simonov says that the verdict's immediate effect is to "open up more space for maneuvering" during the campaign, for both aspiring Duma deputies and those who cover them, but he's not sure the media will take advantage of that space. "Self-censorship is already absolutely there," he says. "Journalists are afraid. The fear is the basic thing." And no court can take that away.