By: Eric Engleman, Associated Press Writer
(AP) Russia’s leading news organizations, including state television, urged President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday to reject tough new restrictions on terrorism coverage adopted by parliament following the Moscow theater siege.
Amendments passed by both houses of parliament — and awaiting Putin’s approval — would prohibit the news media from reporting any information seen as hindering anti-terrorist operations and would ban the broadcast or publication of rebel statements.
Thirty organizations, including Russia’s two main state-controlled television channels and their independent rivals, signed a letter to the president urging him to reject the measure.
Critics say the restrictions are an attack on free expression and would be open to abuse, since it’s not clear who would evaluate the coverage, what standards they would use or how violations would be punished.
“We agree that some of the actions of journalists and mass media organizations during the latest terrorist act in Moscow were incorrect,” the letter said.
But the restrictions would result in the “elimination of objective coverage of events,” said the letter, signed by an array of news outlets, publishing houses, and free-speech groups.
The head of Putin’s own human rights committee, Ella Pamfilova, also called on the president to reject the restrictions, saying they could “seriously affect the rights and liberties of citizens.”
Lawmakers passed the amendments following the Oct. 23 raid of a Moscow theater by Chechen militants.
Russian special forces stormed the building three days later, killing 41 militants. At least 128 hostages also died from the effects of a narcotic gas used to knock out the rebels.
The amendments would prohibit news organizations from revealing tactics used in operations such as the storming of the theater or covering the people involved. They would also ban the airing of statements by militants or “propaganda or justification of extremist activity.”
Many journalists say the restrictions could be used to shut down any news organization that irks authorities. They also complain that the restrictions could be used to further restrict coverage of the war in Chechnya — which Russian officials routinely refer to as a “counter-terrorist operation.”
The amendments “make it possible for coverage of any event, as our lawyers say, to be declared anti-government,” said Alexei Venediktov, editor in chief of Echo of Moscow radio.
During the theater siege, authorities complained to Echo of Moscow after it aired a live interview with a hostage-taker and posted the text of that interview on its Web site. Officials also briefly shut down a Moscow television station during the crisis, accusing it of broadcasting information of possible escape routes for the hostage-takers.
Russian Press Minister Mikhail Lesin, who met with journalists Wednesday who signed the letter to Putin, did not reveal Putin’s plans but said the government and media need to work together to draft new media regulations for “emergency situations.”
“The sooner we draft them, the easier it will be for the media to work,” he said.