Medvedev sinks tougher media libel law

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in effect sank proposed changes to the law on Monday that would have given courts the power to close media outlets suspected of libel.

Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev is pictured during his visit to Beijing University May 24, 2008. REUTERS/Alexander Natruskin

The move could awaken hopes of greater media freedom under Medvedev, a former corporate lawyer who was sworn in as president on May 7, succeeding Vladimir Putin.

Many Russian journalists say Putin, who now serves as prime minister, stifled media freedoms in his eight years as president. The Kremlin has been eager to present Medvedev as a more libertarian leader.

Medvedev made a critical note on the new amendments to the media bill, which passed in the first of three readings on April 25, and sent them to parliament speaker Boris Gryzlov, the parliamentary leader of Putin’s majority United Russia party.

The move in effect sinks the bill.

“It would be logical to remove this draft from further discussion,” Medvedev said in his note, published by Russia’s three main news agencies.

“It is obvious that the ... draft law could lead only to the creation of hindrances to the normal functioning of the media, and does not accomplish the declared aims -- to defend citizens from the distribution of material that is libelous.”

United Russia lawmaker Robert Shlegel had put forward the amendments, which gained support after a Moscow newspaper reported that Putin was divorcing his wife and planned to marry a 24-year-old Olympic gymnast.

Putin, who is chairman of United Russia, said there was no truth in the report.

The amendments would have allowed the authorities -- even without a court decision -- to prevent media outlets from operating if they believed a libel had been printed.

They would have added the printing of “deliberately false information, defaming the honor and dignity of another person, or damaging his reputation” to the list of offences for which a media outlet can be closed down.

At present, media can be shut only for publishing state secrets, extremist statements, calls to carry out terrorist acts or statements justifying terrorism.

Under Putin’s presidency, major television channels were brought under firm state control and never criticized the Kremlin. Putin’s supporters say Russian media are free and point to sometimes highly critical reporting on the Internet.

Medvedev, 42, has made several statements about support for freedom that have raised hopes that he could bring a softer touch to the Kremlin. Critics dismiss the statements as Kremlin propaganda.

Editing by Kevin Liffey