Outcry at Russian government's media crackdown bid

Moscow, Russia - Rights groups on Friday denounced a bill that would enable Russia's security services to fine, summon and potentially detain journalists whose work is seen as aiding extremism.

Critics said the government bill, submitted to parliament last weekend, smacked of Soviet-style censorship.

It comes one month after twin suicide bombings blamed on female attackers from the North Caucasus killed 40 people in Moscow's metro, fuelling fears of a wave of bombings by Islamist militants from the turbulent region.

Activists said the proposal confirmed their fears the government would try to crimp civil freedoms after the attacks.

"This raises the possibility of returning to the repression of Soviet times and I do not like it one bit," Alexander Cherkasov, a North Caucasus expert from Russian rights group Memorial, told Reuters.

If passed by parliament and signed into law by President Dmitry Medvedev, the proposed legislative changes would also allow authorities to demand newspaper, websites and other media withdraw material deemed to "aid extremists."

"Certain media outlets, both printed and electronic, openly aid the formation of negative processes in the moral sphere," the government said in an accompanying statement to the proposed bill, on the parliament's official site duma.gov.ru.

Those outlets fostered "a cult of individualism and violence, and lack of faith in the state's ability to protect its citizens, effectively dragging youth into extremist activity," it said.

The FSB security service, successor to the Soviet KGB, would be responsible for implementation. Journalists could be called in for questioning by the FSB and face penalties up to 50,000 roubles ($1,714) or 15 days of detention for failure to comply.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a New York-based media watchdog, said the bill would give Russian authorities "Soviet-style power to censor information" and called for it to be immediately scrapped.

"Instead of focusing their energy on fighting work-related violence against journalists in Russia, authorities are gearing up to fight the journalists for doing their job," CPJ regional program coordinator Nina Ognianova said in a statement.

A slew of reports appeared in Russian media after the March 29 metro attacks that suggested the Kremlin's handling of the Islamist insurgency in the North Caucasus was ineffective, with some suggesting it had failed.

"How will we tackle extremism if there are sanctions on those who bring the topic into the public eye?" Cherkasov said.