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Moscow further tightens media controls after Putin marriage to gymnast rumor

29 February, 2008:

The Russian government has further tightened its grip on the media following in a report in a newspaper which said that President Vladimir Putin had divorced his wife to marry a gymnast less than half his age.

The State Duma, lower house of Russian parliament, voted 339-1 to widen the definition of slander and libel and give regulators the authority to shut down media outlets found guilty of publishing such material.

British newspaper Independent described the legislation as “the latest attempt by the government to squeeze Russia’s increasingly embattled news media.”

The Bill allows authorities to suspend and close down media outlets for libel and slander – the same punishment that are given for offences such as promotion of terrorism, extremism and racial hatred.

It also expands the definition for slander and libel to “dissemination of deliberately false information damaging individual honour and dignity.”

The passage of the Bill comes just days after the tabloid newspaper Moskovsky Korrespondent published the reported that President Vladimir Putin, 55, had divorced Lyudmila, who has been his wife for 25 years, and was planning to marry champion gymnast Alina Kabayeva, 24.

Alina Kabayeva, who won a gold medal in gymnastics at the 2004 Olympic Games, is widely regarded as one of Russia’s most beautiful women. She participates in talk shows and reality-television programmes and is also a member of the State Duma from a pro-Kremlin party.

The story in the Moskovsky Korrespondent, which was picked up by the media worldwide, had acutely embarrassed the Kremlin and made Putin describe journalists as “those who, with their snotty noses and erotic fantasies, prowl into others’ lives.”

Putin had strongly denied the report.

Moskovsky Korrespondent subsequently ran a front-page apology, shut down for “financial reasons” after authorities in Moscow banned its distribution and the chief editor resigned.

According to a report in The New York Times, the libel Bill was initially submitted in January 2008 by Robert Schlegel, a legislator and former activist of the Nashi (‘Ours’) youth movement, which gained infamy for street protests and political pranks against critics of President Putin.

The State Duma, which rejected the first draft, approved the new version Schlegel presented after the story about Putin appeared. However, Schlegel did not cite the story in introducing the Bill.

Critics allege that Putin had presided over cancellation of many of the media and political freedoms that Russia enjoyed after the fall of the erstwhile Soviet Union. In two glaring examples, all major national television networks were brought under the control of the Kremlin or its allies, and Russia’s print media came under growing official pressure.






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