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Russian MPs pass law limiting foreign media ownership

September 26, 2014

Russian lawmakers on Friday hurried through a law limiting foreign ownership of media to 20 percent, threatening some of the country’s most respected independent media that still dares to criticise the Kremlin.

The Duma lower house of parliament rushed through the bill in both the second and third readings, with just two lawmakers voting against. The law was submitted last week and the first reading of the bill was on Tuesday.

It prohibits media outlets being funded or run by foreign groups or individuals — including Russians with dual nationality — and puts a 20-percent cap on foreign ownership.

The bill’s cross-party authors said in an accompanying note that its aim was to prevent foreigners from “having an influence on the taking of strategic decisions”.

They warned that foreign ownership of media “could threaten the information security of the country”.

One of the bill’s authors, Vadim Dengin, told RIA Novosti news agency that the law would affect around 30 media outlets.

The law has now only to be passed by the upper house, the Federation Council, seen as a rubber-stamping body, and signed into law by President Vladimir Putin.

The law is due to come into force in 2016, after which media companies will have a year to bring their ownership into line.

In a similar move, Russia has previously legally restricted foreign involvement in political NGOs, which must now label themselves as “foreign agents” if they receive any international funding.

– ‘A fifth column’ –

The media law will directly affect publications including respected business daily Vedomosti, which publishes editorials that are frankly critical of Kremlin policies and is jointly owned by Finnish media group Sanoma Independent Media, Dow Jones and the FT Group.

Sanoma Independent Media also publishes many glossy magazines and the English-language newspaper The Moscow Times.

Vedomosti wrote Friday that “in its current form, the law affects more than half of Russian media,” much of which is registered offshore.

“Now all media with foreign capital that cover politics and society are seen as a fifth column,” Vedomosti wrote in an editorial.

The law will also affect the Russian edition of Forbes magazine, which is published by German house Axel Springer.

Several other major publishing houses that put out glossy magazines are foreign owned, including Conde Nast, which publishes the Russian edition of Vogue.

The editor of Moskovsky Komsomolets daily, Pavel Gusev, said he viewed the hastily drawn-up law as a form of revenge for Western sanctions against Russia over its actions in Ukraine.

“Why is this being done? In my view, it could be like sanctions in answer to the West’s sanctions: we ‘ll cut off a certain level of your financial participation… in Russia,” he told TASS news agency.

“Foreign media investors did not come to Russia to threaten its national security or harness public opinion in order to stage a hostile coup and eventually make the country disintegrate,” The Moscow Times argued in an editorial.

“They came here to earn money, and they did, contributing in turn to Russia’s growing prosperity.

The law will lead to see plum media holdings being sold off to buyers who are “authorised by the Kremlin,” warned Anton Nosik, media director at SUP Media, owner of LiveJournal.

“Since we are talking about regulating a whole large market with turnover in billions of dollars, here naturally there is also a distinct commercial interest as well as the patriotic frenzy.”

Russia currently restricts radio and television, which can only be a maximum 50 percent foreign owned.

The largest media organisations in Russia are owned by the state or controlled by Putin associates.

Dispatches from AFP concerning freedom of information, censorship and news coverage in regions where independent media is under threat.