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(Moscow) - President Vladimir Putin signed into law on July 21, 2014 a series of amendments banning commercial advertising on paid cable and satellite television channels, Human Rights Watch said today. The law unnecessarily interferes with the right to freedom of expression and should be repealed, Human Rights Watch said.

The new amendments to the federal law “On Advertising” bans cable and satellite channels that charge viewers a subscription fee from receiving revenue for commercials in their programming. The law does not apply to Russian public TV channels, including nationwide channels owned or controlled by the Kremlin. According to an assessment by Russia’s state agency for media oversight, the new amendments will affect about 1,400 paid channels, or 40 percent of Russia’s television channels.

“The new provisions will strip hundreds of privately owned television channels of a crucial source of income, forcing them to choose between raising the subscription price or shutting down,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The new law is likely to destroy regional television and independent broadcasting, cut off Russians from important sources of information and further shrink space for media freedom in Russia.”

Television is the main source of news for most Russians, but the most widely broadcast stations for many years have been almost exclusively in the hands of the government or companies with very close ties to the Kremlin. In the past few years, editorial control over several prominent online news services has also shifted toward individuals with close ties to the Kremlin, as has VKontakte, the most popular Russian social media platform.

In June, when the controversial bill was under consideration in the Duma, the lower chamber of Russia’s parliament, the heads of 12 prominent satellite and cable television stations unsuccessfully urged President  Putin, the speaker of the Duma, and other top officials to postpone consideration of the  bill to allow for a broad public debate.  But the bill was rushed through Parliament with no public debate or opportunity for cable and satellite television stations to provide any input.

On July 8, Russia’s  Presidential Human Rights Council expressed concern that the amendments would lead to “inevitable narrowing of the information field, within which the audience exercise their constitutional rights: freedom of the media, access to information, access to cultural values, etc.”

On July 7, Dunja Mijatovic, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) representative on media freedom, issued a statement urging President Putin to veto the law. She noted that the adoption of such restrictions could lead to the closing of many small television broadcasters whose revenue depends primarily on advertising.

The amendments will come into force on January 1, 2015.

The measure is incompatible with the right to freedom of expression as protected under international law in several aspects. First, commercial advertising is protected speech under international legal standards, including both the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (article 19) and the European Convention on Human Rights (article 10), to which Russia is a party.  

The ban on commercial advertising interferes with that protected speech. Any such interference must not only have a legal basis, but address a purpose recognized by the treaties and be necessary and proportionate to achieve that purpose. The blanket ban introduced by the law is neither necessary nor proportionate and also fails to pursue a legitimate purpose recognized by human rights law, Human Rights Watch said.

The ban also restricts the capacity of non-government media outlets to operate, threatening diversity and competition in the audio-visual sector, which, the European Court of Human Rights has said is essential to freedom of expression in a democratic society. The court has said that governments have “a positive obligation to put in place an appropriate legislative and administrative framework to guarantee effective media pluralism” and repeatedly made that point, including in Manole and Others v. Moldova, Application No. 13936/02, Judgment September 17, 2009. The court has noted that “to ensure true pluralism in the audio-visual sector in a democratic society it is not sufficient to provide for … the theoretical possibility for potential operators to access the audio-visual market.” Creating a legal framework designed to cut off the financial resources to enable cable and satellite operators to effectively access the audio-visual market violates that obligation.

The UN Human Rights Committee has also repeatedly underscored the importance of countries promoting pluralism in the media and encouraging independent and diverse media.

Since 2012, the Russian government has passed a series of repressive laws restricting nongovernmental organizations, diminishing public space for independent media, and restricting people’s right to freedom of expression.

President Putin signed the new law three weeks after the parliament passed the latest in a series of restrictions on internet freedom and six months after the authorities targeted Dozhd-TV, a young but increasingly prominent Russian independent cable television station that is often sharply critical of the Kremlin and gives air time to political opposition leaders who are not heard on state-controlled broadcast media.

In late January, Dozhd-TV posed a politically controversial question on its website for readers’ feedback, which prompted the government body for media oversight to open an investigation against it and led several major cable and satellite providers to drop Dozhd-TV from their subscription packages. The investigation did not find that Dozhd-TV had violated law, but the station nearly had to close due to lost revenue.

On July 4, Viktor Zvagelsky, a member of the Russian parliament from the ruling party, said in a program broadcast on Dozhd-TV that he did not exclude the possibility that the new law was intended to target the station, but emphasized that the law “would hit not only Dozhd-TV but all cable television channels.”   

“The new amendments will only further marginalize small private cable and satellite channels driving some of them off the media market,” Williamson said. “Instead of choking private TV broadcasters, the Russian authorities should meet their obligations to protect media freedom and encourage media plurality.”  

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