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European Court: newspapers must be free to comment on political matters during elections

European Court: newspapers must be free to comment on political matters during elections

The European Court of Human Rights has condemned the use of electoral laws by Russia to restrict critical reporting on politicians.

In 2007, the regional Electoral Committee instituted administrative proceedings against Russian newspaper Orlovskaya Iskra Gazeta, which had published reports that were strongly critical of a regional governor who stood as a candidate for parliament. The newspaper was ordered to pay a punitive fine, which was upheld on appeal as the domestic courts held the reports constituted “election campaigning”.

MLDI joined forces with the Russian organisation Mass Media Defence Centre to intervene in the case at the European level in 2011, highlighting that Russia’s law and practice was clearly out of step with European guidance and practice.

In its judgment handed down today the Court agreed and found a violation of the newspaper’s right to freedom of expression. In the Court’s view, Russia’s regulatory framework excessively and without compelling justification reduced the scope for press expression and restricted Orlovskaya Iskra Gazeta’s freedom to impart information and ideas. The court further noted that free elections and freedom of expression, particularly freedom of political debate, together form the bedrock of any democratic system. The two rights are inter-related: discussion of the candidates and their programmes contributes to the public’s right to receive information and strengthens voters’ ability to make informed choices between candidates for office.

An open debate is vital in a democracy, especially in an election period. “Restrictions imposed on the print media in times of elections can impair the right of the public to be informed as well as the media’s right to freedom of expression” said Galina Arapova of MMDC. “They also undermine the media’s duty to act as the watchdog of democratic society. Print media should be free to express a political preference and criticise policies.”

MLDI Senior Legal Officer Alinda Vermeer said: “Opinions and information of all kinds should be permitted to circulate freely at election time. This judgment adds pressure on Russia and other countries bound by the European Convention of Human Rights to take measures to guarantee the right of the media to report on politics in times of elections and ensure the public’s right to be adequately informed.”

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