Vienna, March 15 – United Russia’s fraction in the Russian Federation is preparing to copy a Moscow city decision to ban any references in the media to the ethnicity, race, or religion of those who are suspected of committing a crime or convicted of doing so, a measure that will do both less and more than its authors suggest.
On the one hand, as the experience of the media in other countries has shown, the Russian media will retain the ability to communicate such characteristics of people in these groups either by stressing the names – many of which are ethnically specific -- of those involved or providing pictures of them and their environment.
On the other hand -- and much more ominously -- such legislation, however well-intentioned some of its backers may be, creates both the legal and institutional framework for vastly more far-reaching official censorship of stories on television, radio, the print media and the Internet. At the least, it sends a chilling message to everyone involved.
Last week, the Moscow city legislature passed a measure that would ban media references to the ethnicity, race or religion of such people, and now Boris Gryzlov, the leader of the pro-Kremlin United Russia in the Duma has called for including similar bans at the country-wide level (http://www.narodru.ru/article7712.html).
Such a step is necessary, Gryzlov said this week, because “in the near term prospect we must recognize that our nationality is ‘Rossiyane’.” Given his position and the discipline of his party, it appears nearly certain that such a measure will pass and is likely to receive the imprimatur of President Vladimir Putin.
Specifically, the language to be included the national media law on this point is to read: any “distribution in the mass media and also in computer networks of references to the national or religious membership or about the religion of those who suffer, those who commit crimes, those suspected of and accused of committing crimes” is prohibited.
Because media reports about the alleged involvement in criminal activity Muslims, “persons of Caucasus nationality,” or other minorities have often tended to exacerbate the situation, exacerbating interethnic and interfaith tensions, many will see this proposed ban as a good thing.
But as the writer of the “Novaya politika” article featured on the Narodru.ru site put it, the situation in this case is much as former Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin put it in another connection: Russians may indeed “want something better, but things turn out as usual.
Not only is such a ban certain to be ineffective and create a dangerous precedent likely to be extended to other groups, but it highlights some fundamental contradictions on Russian policy toward non-Russian groups and threatens the progress that ethnic minorities made in some areas because of preferences afforded them in the past.
Indeed, the contradiction of this policy and other Moscow policies was all too obvious this week. As the APN.ru site reported yesterday, Moscow is now planning to allow ethnic Chechens convicted of crimes anywhere in the Russian Federation to serve their sentences in Chechnya itself. (http://www.apn.ru/print11642.htm).
That not only creates a precedent that other non-Russian republics within the Russian Federation may cite but also may lead the Chechen government to demand even more concessions. But however that might be, such a move inherently ethnicizes Russian life – precisely the opposite of what Gryzlov and United Russia say they seek.
And such a ban will do little or nothing to stem the flow of attacks on members of religious and ethnic minorities. As the SOVA Center’s Galina Kozhevnikova told a St. Petersburg conference on Monday, over the last year, 5.18 percent of all references to Muslims in the press have been negative (http://www.islam.ru, March 13).
If United Russia gets its way – and it almost certainly will – this latest limitation on media freedom in the Russian Federation almost certainly will generation even more xenophobic and anti-minority attitudes as readers again as in Soviet times read between the lines to learn exactly what is going on.