Regulatory structures

IRIS Extra 2017-1: Judicial practice on media freedom in Russia: the role of the Supreme Court

Author: Andrei Richter, Media Academy Bratislava

Published: 17/05/2017

The need for coherence in the interpretation of the law is not an invention of modern times, but dates back already to Roman law. The first jurist to attempt to put some order into the mass of remedies and interpretations that constituted the civil law was Quintus Mucius Scaevola about a century before the end of the Republic (died 82 BC). He identified a number of general rules, called definitiones, which were summary statements of the state of the law.

Some centuries later (AD 529), when the compilers of the Digest under emperor Justinian were writing the compendium also known as the Pandects, they were instructed to eliminate any disagreement among the works they excerpted. The goal was to ensure that all judges around the Roman empire were providing the same interpretation of the law, according to the two fundamental principles of fairness (aequitas) and practicality (utilitas).

A similar need for consistency is shared by our contemporary judges, and we have an important example of such an exercise from the Russian Federation’s highest court. For the first time in its history, in 2010 the Russian Supreme Court adopted a Resolution providing a set of interpretation rules (explanations), with the goal of ensuring a uniform application of media legislation across the Russian Federation. These explanations serve as interpretative guidance for the judges at any level, and they are quoted as arguments for their decisions.

This article of Andrei Richter provides an overview of the way Russian jurisprudence has been influenced by these interpretative guidelines since their adoption six and a half years ago, and delves into the following areas:

  • Media freedom (hereunder also censorship and abuse of the freedom of mass media),
  • Regulation of online media (including responsibility for content),
  • Rights of journalists (as protection of privileges and public interest),
  • Access to information (including accreditation of journalists and transparency).

What can clearly be noticed is that judges tend to be more attentive to follow the constitutional guarantees on media freedom, and also the provisions on freedom of expression as enshrined in the European Convention of Human Rights and in the case-law of the European Court of Human Rights. Interestingly, the Resolution of the Russian Supreme Court has also inspired neighbouring countries. In 2015 the Supreme Court of the Republic of Kyrgyzstan adopted a similar Resolution reproducing among others the principles concerning the need to balance rights to honour and dignity with freedom of expression.