Vladimir Putin signed a new Bill into law yesterday that bars foreign companies from owning more than 20 per cent of Russian media outlets.
Coming as the Kremlin wages an information war with the West over the Ukrainian crisis, the restrictions will hurt international investors and limit the influence of outside broadcasters and publishers in shaping Russian public opinion.
Amendments to Russia’s media law placing a 20 per cent cap on foreign ownership of television, radio print and online media were whisked through the Russian parliament last month without public debate. Existing legislation limits foreign ownership of media outlets to 50 per cent, but applies only to television and radio.
Putin signed off on the amendments. Media outlets will be obliged to comply with the new rules no later than February 2017. Even before the
crisis erupted this year the Kremlin had embarked on a draconian campaign to consolidate state control of the media and silence dissident voices.
With the exception of a few independent publications, Russian media has covered the protests in Kiev that led to the overthrow of Ukraine's president Viktor Yanukovich in a negative light and portrayed separatist fighters in east Ukraine as the victims of government aggression. Russian officials and commentators frequently accuse the West of encouraging an illegal power grab that ushered in the new, pro-European leadership in Ukraine.
Russia is obsessed with controlling what is said about the crisis in Ukraine and its role in the conflict, according to Human Rights Watch.
Millions of Russians would be denied the “fundamental right to information from a source of their choice” as the restrictions on foreign media came into force.
Foreign companies affected by the new legislation include Nasdaq-listed CTC Media, which owns and operates three Russian television channels and a number of digital media assets.
Publishers of glossy magazines, including Germany's Axel Springer, the US Hearst Corporation, and Conde Nast, whose Russian-language editions of Vogue, GQ and Tatler are hugely popular, will also be forced to reduce their holdings in Russia.
Another victim will be Vedomosti, Russia's leading business daily, which is part-owned by the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times. A wave of anti-western sentiment sweeping Russia will allow the Kremlin to consolidate its grip on the media while punishing the US and European Union for imposing economic sanctions in the wake of the Ukraine crisis.
Advertising revenues have been falling as the economy contracts, leaving state groups and businessmen loyal to Mr Putin eager for a larger share of the shrinking media pie. However, Vladimir Dengin, a member of Russia’s ultra-nationalist Liberal Democratic Party and one of the authors of the new law, said curbs on foreign involvement in the media were needed to bolster national security.
Events in Ukraine and an accompanying “information assault” on the Russian leadership had necessitated the legislation, he said in an interview with Russian media.
As Putin signed the media restrictions into law this week, Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty and Voice of America launched a television news programme aimed at countering what they described as Russia’s “cynical and reckless media campaign”.
Broadcast from former Soviet countries bordering Russia, the show would provide unbiased, verifiable journalism.