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Russian legislators may throw protecting veil over journalists

August 08, 2013, 16:46 UTC+3 Alexandrova Lyudmila

MOSCOW, August 8 (Itar-Tass) - There is a possibility that Russian legislators may decide to throw a protecting veil over journalists. The State Duma, as the daily Izvestia reports, is discussing an immunity status for media workers, similar to that already enjoyed by legislators. State Duma member Mikhail Serdyuk, of the A Just Russia faction, is the idea’s brainfather.

The deputy invites his fellow legislators to make amendments to the law on mass media to complement it with the term “journalistic immunity.” In his opinion, this would make it harder to open criminal or administrative cases against journalists.

“The immunity status may help protect from arbitrariness by law enforcers," Serdyuk said. "True, many cases never end up in court, but this resource works pretty well as a means of pressure on journalists. For this reason, the whole procedure of indicting journalists on criminal charges or bringing them to administrative responsibility should be the exclusive domain of the prosecutor’s office,” he added.

At the moment, immunity status is a privilege of top officials, politicians taking elective posts, lawyers, auditors and members of election commissions.

If any investigative authorities have some suspicions regarding a State Duma member, an arrest warrant may be issued only after the prosecutor-general has asked the lower house of parliament for it personally.

As far as journalists are concerned, the procedure may look far simpler - to bring a journalist to justice for committing a criminal or administrative offense, the way the amendment’s author sees it, it would be enough to obtain permission from the prosecutor of the mass media employee’s hometown.

Ideas like that sparked debates among the lawmakers on several occasions in the past. As the RBC Daily recalls, a similar proposal was earlier voiced by another A Just Russia member, Oleg Mikheyev. The sole difference is in his bill is the demand for full immunity for journalists. He just suggested making the procedure of instituting legal proceedings against mass media workers more complicated.

State Duma Deputy Speaker Sergei Zheleznyak is very critical of such proposals. “A rudiment like immunity will sooner or later be canceled for all categories of citizens,” he promised.

Shortly after journalist Ahmednabi Ahmednabiyev was murdered in Dagestan, State Duma members drafted a bill tightening punishment for violence against mass media workers. The initiative was proposed by Mikhail Serdyuk, of A Just Russia, and United Russia faction member Valery Trapeznikov.

The legislator proposed amendments to article 144 of the Criminal Code (titled Creation of Hindrances to the Legal Professional Activity of Journalists), and to increase the maximum prison term for violence dangerous to a journalist’s life and health to ten years. Also, they propose a fine of up to 200,000 rubles for threats or for violence not dangerous to life or health. Violence threatening a journalist’s life and health will be punishable with a prison term of up to ten years.

At the moment, violence and threats against journalists may entail compulsory works for a period of up to five years or imprisonment for up to six years, but only if the crime was committed while the journalist was performing his duties.

Now, as the amendments’ author Mikhail Serdyuk has said, the Criminal Code may be complemented with amendments concerning not only journalists’ activity while on assignment, but related with any professional activity.

“A journalist may be not at work at the moment. He may be out of the office. He may have his day off when attacked. But in fact he or she is “in the line of fire” all the time. A crime committed against a journalist is often a consequence of professional activity,” Serdyuk explained.

“Proper protection must be established for journalists who are investigating such affairs as murders, bribes and corruption,” says Valery Trapeznikov, of United Russia. “For those who have to deal with major crimes against the state. Such journalists are very helpful to the law enforcement agencies. They’ve got to be protected. Journalists are the most respected people in society.”

A member of the presidential council for human rights, journalist Ivan Zasursky, says that the problem of journalists’ protection was raised at the council’s latest meeting with Vladimir Putin, who responded with understanding.

In the meantime, journalism remains one of the most risky professions in Russia. This year, Russia has again taken ninth place on the list of twelve countries where media workers are exposed to the worst risks, according to the Impunity Index the New York-headquartered Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) publishes annually.

The list quoted by Forbes magazine was published on the organization’s website. It relies on the ratio of unsolved murders against the country’s population. The 2013 list contains only crimes committed from January 1, 2003 through December 31, 2012. Russia, where 14 murders of mass media workers remain unsolved, is number nine on the Impunity Index. Journalists working in the North Caucasus republics have been least protected over the past few years. Television and radio correspondent Kazbek Gekkiyev, murdered in December 2012, was the latest victim.

Russia’s rating on the Impunity Index is 0.099 (14 murders per a population of 141.9 million). In the previous year, Russia was in ninth place, too. According to the organization’s news release, Russia’s chronic inability to bring the murderers of journalists to justice prompted lawyers campaigning for human rights and the mother of journalist Maxim Maximov, who went missing to be eventually declared dead, to file a complaint at the European court of human rights. Also, the CPJ recalls that the prosecutor’s office has managed to achieve the conviction of a former police officer involved in the murder of investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya.