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Russia: Supreme Court Ruling on Unrestricted Access of Journalists to Trials

(Jan. 8, 2013) On December 13, 2012, the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation issued Guiding Explanations on the Implementation of the Constitutional Requirement to Keep Judicial Trials Open to the Public. (Ruling No. 35 of December 13, 2012 [in Russian], Russian Federation Supreme Court website.) Judicial openness is a constitutional requirement; article 123 of the Russian Constitution says that “the examination of cases in all courts shall be open.” [Constitution of the Russian Federation[in Russian] (last visited Jan. 7, 2013) (official publication).] The recent Supreme Court ruling creates a set of norms to help implement this provision and to make people more aware of how justice is to be administered.

The ruling defines how to establish access to a trial for people who are not parties to the case and are representatives of public organizations or the mass media. The ruling requires courts to take all necessary measures to accommodate interested people and provides for the creation of overflow rooms in the courts if there are too many people wanting to attend a trial. Such rooms must have equipment for live broadcasts from the courtrooms. Additionally, the ruling obligates the courts to establish access to court hearings for people with disabilities. (Id.)

The ruling states that because all court trials must be open, special accreditation of journalists is not required. According to the Supreme Court, the “presence of a journalist in a courtroom is a legitimate way to seek and obtain information,” and people attending an open trial need not inform the judge or request his/her approval if they want to make a record of the proceedings, including by means of audio recordings. (Id.) The ruling emphasizes that online text broadcasts do not require the court’s approval, and journalists are allowed to post tweets or forward text messages from the courtroom. As one of the Supreme Court Justices commented, “in cases of tweeting or audio recording, modern technologies replace pen and paper.” (Vladislav Kulikov, Court Is Open for All Interested [in Russian], ROSSIISKAIA GAZETA (Dec. 14, 2012).)

Photo and video cameras, however, can be used in the courtroom only with the judge’s permission, to be given after consultation with all the parties involved. If such recording does not violate the legal rights of the parties, the use of cameras in the courtroom cannot be prohibited simply because of an “unreasonable unwillingness” on the part of one of the parties. (Ruling No. 35, supra.)

In order to avoid unnecessary trial secrecy and to prevent judges from conducting hearings behind closed doors, the ruling confirms that closed hearings can be held only in cases in which state secrets or a child adoption are discussed or when a party requests secrecy because of a fear that the divulgence of private information during the trial might violate privacy rights. The ruling specifically states that discussion of a party’s private affairs is not a reason for removing the public from the courtroom and that violation of open trial rules can be a substantial enough reason for cancellation of a judgment by a higher court. (Id.) Issues related to online publication of court orders and judgments are also discussed in the ruling. (Id.)

Because the ruling allows judges to give interviews and participate in press conferences without violating the principle of judicial independence, the Congress of Judges, the Russian professional organization of judges, amended the professional Code of Ethics, allowing judges to comment on cases they recently resolved. (Elena Shmaraeva, Be Careful, Courts Are Open [in Russian], GAZETA.RU (Dec. 25, 2012).)

While they affirmed the usefulness of the ruling, which legitimizes the access of mass media to courtrooms, leading Russian court reporters expressed their hope that because of the increased openness of trials, judges will follow existing procedural laws more strictly. (Id.)