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Russian Lawmakers OK Media Limits

Times Staff Writer

Less than a week after the takeover of a theater by Chechen rebels led to the death of 119 hostages, Russia’s lower house of parliament Friday approved amendments limiting media coverage of terrorism that were decried by some journalists and human rights groups as a step toward censorship.

The lower house, or State Duma, which is controlled by forces loyal to President Vladimir V. Putin, also amended the law on terrorism so that authorities are no longer required to return the bodies of slain attackers to their families or reveal where they are buried.

The draft amendments on the media, which require passage in the upper house and Putin’s signature to become law, would bar broadcasters and publications from spreading any information deemed to hamper the conduct of anti-terrorism operations or endanger the lives or health of people involved.

The amendments, first proposed in the State Duma before the hostage-taking, passed easily on the third and final reading on a vote of 231 to 106.

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The restrictions specifically ban publishing information about technology, weapons, ammunition and explosives used in anti-terrorism operations. They also forbid broadcasting of “propaganda or justification of extremist activity” -- apparently meaning that the public may not have access to the viewpoints of the radical groups staging terrorist acts.

Taken together, the measures reflect the toughened political mood here since the assault by suicidal Chechen militants in the heart of the capital. In the wake of the assault, police officials were criticized for failing to publicly identify a knockout gas that was later blamed for 117 of the 119 hostage deaths.

Some liberals have expressed fear that hard-liners in the security services are using the siege as a justification to tighten state control over many aspects of Russian life.

Oleg Panfilov of the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations, a Moscow-based organization that seeks to protect journalists’ rights, said the amendments send a clear message that it is no longer acceptable to criticize the government.

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“Authorities will use these amendments selectively when there is a need to punish dissenters -- those liberals who have been a thorn in the flesh of Russian officials for a long time,” Panfilov said.

“We can see the state ideology changing today. This change started with Putin’s rise to power, and this change is manifested today in the revival of the institution of censorship and Soviet-style propaganda in the Russian media.”

A leading human rights organization, Memorial, said the law would hamper its efforts to document human rights abuses by Russian forces in the separatist republic of Chechnya.

“With the new rules being enforced, the world may lose Chechnya from its sight altogether -- no one will know what is happening in Chechnya and which way the situation there is going,” said Tatyana I. Kasatkina, a Memorial leader. “Anyone who dares to break the rule can be immediately held liable for either helping terrorists or interfering with the plans of the authorities.”

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In theory, she said, if this law had been in place before the hostage-taking last week, officials could have muzzled news organizations and kept the entire episode a secret.

Defenders of the measure, however, said it isn’t that draconian. The intent, they said, is to stop terrorists from using the media to promote their agendas and also to prevent broadcasters from giving out details of security operations that would be to the advantage of terrorists.

“I don’t think this is a limitation of democratic freedom,” said Viktor Ozerov, a member of the Federation Council, parliament’s upper chamber. “In such situations, only information from official sources should be used. Third-hand information should not be broadcast.”

In addition to the amendments on the media, Kasatkina faulted the change in the law that would allow authorities to secretly bury slain attackers.

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“The fact that the authorities do not have to hand over the bodies of the so-called terrorists to their relatives means only one thing: Summary executions will be legalized as Putin will keep driving the conflict under the carpet by using force indiscriminately in Chechnya,” she said.

The argument for that amendment, preliminarily approved 288 to 1 with two abstentions, was that terrorist sympathizers might otherwise make a shrine of the graves and use them as political rallying points.

An editor for the tabloid Versiya, Alexei Goreslavsky, said he got a taste Friday of what the new law would mean when agents from the Federal Security Service, or FSB, the KGB successor agency, came with a warrant and said they wanted to impound the paper’s computer.

Goreslavsky said the officers said their inquiry was related to a May 27 article about construction of private housing on FSB property. But he said he believes it had more to do with coverage of the hostage-taking siege.

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“It is very likely that the authorities have decided to crack down on the unruly mass media -- otherwise, why else would the FSB send eight of its officers to a paper that is just about to publish materials that run counter to the official version of such a socially important event as a hostage-taking incident in the capital?” he said.

He said that government pressure on journalists has been on the rise years and that the new amendments would make their job even tougher.

“Journalists will have to weigh their every word,” he said, “and finally the FSB and other secret services will decide if we have gone over the line.”

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Alexei V. Kuznetsov of The Times’ Moscow Bureau contributed to this report.


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