Russia Moves to Extend Control of Media

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September 25, 2014 by newsgetting

Russia’s Parliament passed a preliminary bill on Tuesday that would limit foreign ownership of Russian media outlets to 20 percent, targeting several prominent publications critical of the government and extending the Kremlin’s control over the nation’s independent news media. The country’s top business daily, Vedomosti, the Russian edition of Forbes and dozens of other news, society and fashion magazines would fall under the purview of the bill, which would force the publications to change ownership or close by 2017. The first reading of the bill was passed by a near-unanimous vote of 434-1 during an intense debate, as lawmakers charged that the West was using the news media to attack the Russian government. “The cold war, namely the information war, which is being unleashed against the Russian Federation, requires us to apply its rules,” said Vadim Dengin, the lawmaker who sponsored the bill. With the conflict in Ukraine still simmering and relations with the West at their lowest point in decades, Russia is working hard to mold its image in both international and local media. While the government has long consolidated control over the country’s leading television networks, in the last year the Kremlin has taken aggressive steps to rein in Internet media as well. Prosecutors have blocked the websites of Aleksei A. Navalny, a prominent whistle-blower and opposition politician, and other opposition sites, and prominent bloggers are now required to register with the government. RIA Novosti, once seen as a liberal bastion among government news media, was liquidated and reincorporated under the name Rossiya Segodnya, or Russia Today. The liberal online television channel Dozhd was nearly driven to bankruptcy in what its owners said was a politically motivated attack. Vedomosti and Forbes Russia provide some of the most critical coverage in the country. In August, Vedomosti broke the news that the country’s oil giant, Rosneft, had asked the government for a $41 billion bailout to help weather sanctions from the West. Forbes Russia has ruffled feathers with a yearly listing of the country’s richest people, the powerful oligarchs, as well as the salaries of managers at some of the government’s largest companies. Igor I. Sechin, the head of Rosneft and a close ally of President Vladimir V. Putin, successfully sued both Forbes and Vedomosti this summer — Forbes for naming him the country’s highest-paid chief executive officer, with an estimated salary of $50 million, and Vedomosti for suggesting that he had undue power over government decisions. “Foreign ownership was the only thing that protected some Russian media outlets’ editorial integrity,” said Leonid Bershidsky, the founding editor of Vedomosti and the first publisher of Forbes Russia. “If it’s not allowed, that last bit of protection is gone.” Mr. Bershidsky said he believed that the government was acting under a “war mentality” and that the bill would pass quickly. It faces two more readings and could be signed into law as early as the end of the week. “You understand that this law basically kills off my life’s work,” Mr. Bershidsky, who recently moved to Germany, said in an email. Vedomosti, which was founded in 1999, is a joint venture of The Financial Times, Dow Jones and Sanoma, a Finnish media group. “People in Russian business and politics often get upset with Vedomosti reporting. It’s a conceptual thing,” said Mikhail Doubik, the current publisher of Vedomosti. “I don’t think it has to do with particular stories. It has to do with the existence of independent media outlets.” The law would also affect a large number of glossy magazines. Sanoma also publishes Russian editions of Cosmopolitan, Esquire, National Geographic and Men’s Health, as well as the English-language newspaper The Moscow Times. The only call in defense of the newspapers in Tuesday’s parliamentary session came from Dmitry G. Gudkov, a renegade lawmaker who has taken part in opposition marches and demonstrations. His was the sole nay vote.

By Andrew Roth (The New York Times)

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