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Russia: Drop New Media Law

The Russian president should veto a set of amendments to the media law that severely undermine media freedom and media pluralism, Human Rights Watch said today.

The amendments, which aim to restrict foreign involvement in Russian media, were introduced in the State Duma, the lower chamber of the parliament, on September 17, 2014. On September 26 the Duma adopted the amendments in the second and third reading, with only two members voting against. The Federation Council, the upper chamber, endorsed the amendments on October 1.

“This law, if signed into force by the president, will cut foreign investment and threaten diversity and competition in Russia’s media market,” said Tanya Cooper, Russia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The media law amendments are clearly aimed at limiting and controlling what Russians can hear and from whom.”

In 2014, Russian authorities have blocked several independent media websites under a new law authorizing the prosecutor’s office to take that step without a court order. Also, Russia adopted new laws banning commercial advertising on cable and satellite television channels and criminalizing “separatist” calls. In May, President Vladimir Putin signed a law requiring bloggers with more than 3,000 unique daily visitors to register with the Russian state agency for media oversight, Roskomnadzor, and follow the same regulations as mass media.

The new amendments were swiftly pushed through the Duma, providing no time for public debate. The existing legislation restricts foreign ownership of Russian media to 50 percent but applies only to television and radio. The amendments would ban a “foreign state, international organization, including an organization controlled by these entities, a foreign legal entity, Russian legal entity with foreign participation, a foreign national, a stateless person, a Russian citizen with another state’s citizenship…” from owning more than 20 percent of a media outlet in Russia. The ban would apply to broadcast, print, and online media.

Vadim Dengin, of the right wing party LDPR (Liberal Democratic Party of Russia), one of the authors of the draft law, said in a media interview that the law was necessary to ensure the country’s national security. In particular, he said it was due to “events on the Russian border [with Ukraine] and an information assault on the country’s leadership.”

“The Russian government’s obsession to control what is being said about the current crisis in Ukraine and Russia’s role in it is spilling into much broader areas,” Cooper said. “But the millions of Russians who will be denied the fundamental right to information from a source of their choice is a huge price to pay.”

If adopted, the law will come into force on January 1, 2016. Media outlets will be required to report their compliance with the law to Roskomnadzor no later than February 15, 2017. Roskomnadzor will have the authority to ask a court to suspend a media outlet in the event it doesn’t comply.

Several major foreign media companies, such as Swedish Modern Times Group or Finish Sanoma Independent Media, own a broad variety of television, print, and online media in Russia. In addition to entertainment media with foreign capital, several major current affairs outlets would be affected by the law – among them business newspaper Vedomosti, known for its independent editorial line, and Forbes Russia. Russian-language versions of several Western channels distributed via cable networks, such as Discovery, TV 1000, Eurosport, and Cartoon Network would also be affected.

When Putin returned to the Kremlin in 2012, the Russian government unleashed a vicious crackdownon independent groups and activists, imposing draconian restrictions on nongovernmental organizations, independent media, and freedom of expression. With the annexation of Crimea and the unfolding of an armed conflict in eastern Ukraine in 2014, the crackdown on critics of the government and the accompanying anti-Western hysteria in pro-Kremlin media acquired a staggering intensity, unprecedented since the fall of the Soviet Union.

Following the adoption of the amendments by the State Duma, Russia’s Presidential Human Rights Council published a critical expert opinion, finding them legally “imprecise.”

Russia is a party to both the European Convention on Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which guarantee freedom of expression. An essential feature of freedom of expression in a democratic society is pluralism, and the European Court of Human Rights has said that governments have “a positive obligation to put in place an appropriate legislative and administrative framework to guarantee effective media pluralism.” The United Nations Human Rights Committee, which oversees compliance with the ICCPR, has also called on states, and Russia explicitly, to protect and promote media pluralism.

The Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe has called on member states to adopt regulatory frameworks “particularly with regard to media ownership” needed “to guarantee media transparency and structural pluralism as well as diversity of content distributed.” The new amendments fly in the face of such standards and obligations, Human Rights Watch said.

“This new legal framework will severely undermine the diversity of the current media market and reinforce the near-absolute dominance on Russia’s media arena by state-owned and state-controlled media,” Cooper said.