After Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law limiting foreign capital in Russian media companies to 20 percent, there are fears this will undercut the last remaining voices in the country that dare to be critical of the government. But despite massive pressure, a handful of Russian journalists refuse to give in.
© RIA/Scanpix

The law, aimed at curbing foreign influence in the Russian media, was been rushed through legislative process surprisingly quickly. Its first hearing in the State Duma took place on 24 September and, several days later, it was voted on and supported by a sweeping majority of 430 MPs, with only two votes against. Putin then signed the bill into law.

Yevgenia Albats, editor-in-chief of independent Russian weekly The New Times, said on the radio Ekho Moskvy that the law was specifically aimed at quieting the last remaining critics of the Russian government.

According to her, the main targets are the daily Vedomosti and the Russian Forbes magazine.

"It's tragic, since being co-owned by the Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal is what lets Vedomosti to be independent. Swim freely in the big business waters. Moreover, to not rely on any interest group, to not praise Usmanov or the Kovalchuks [Russian oligarchs] or someone else, but to be balanced and, most importantly, to report the news and make editorial decisions according to what is newsworthy, and not who will like it or not," Albats said even before the bill was put in front of the Duma.

In mid-October, Bloomberg quoted several sources saying that the Kremlin was interested in Vedomosti and that the newspaper's shares were being eyed by Gazprom-Media and companies linked to Putin's friend Yury Kovalchuk. True, Gazprom-Media CEO Mikhail Lesin told Dozhd TV on that same day he was not interested in Vedomosti.

At the moment the newspaper's shares are owned, in equal parts, by the Financial Times, the Wall Street Journal and Sanoma, one of Europe's major media groups.

Albats told Ekho Moskvy that the new law would be most biting to the Russian-based Sanoma Independent Media publishing house. This will have implications even for publications that have nothing to do with politics or business, magazine like Cosmopolitan, Women's Health, National Geographic, etc.

Infectious foreign-owned media

Dainius Radzevičius, chairman of the Lithuanian journalist union, agrees that the new Russian law is intended to silence the last remaining voices of dissent in Russia.

"Since they couldn't make incitement of hatred charges stick, like they did with all the others, they came up with another idea - all media must be owned by Russians. This would remove any threat to Putin's authority," Radzevičius thinks.

Mantas Martišius of the Faculty of Communication at Vilnius University says that Moscow started its campaign to chase all foreigners out of the media back in 2001. The ruling then was that foreign capital could not exceed 50 percent in radio and TV companies.

"The argument was that foreign channels would infect Russian minds. What we see today is a sequel - apparently, newspapers and magazines can be just as infectious. Even during the Duma hearings one could hear about this being part of the fight against US conspiracy," Martišius says.

Galina Timchenko
Galina Timchenko
© RIA/Scanpix

The communications expert says media situation in Russia is appalling - everything is run by the Kremlin or its loyalists, which squashes any pluralism of opinion.

According to media freedom index compiled by Reporters Without Borders, Russia is number 148 among 180 countries.

Professionals persist

Galina Timchenko, former editor-in-chief of lenta.ru, launched a new project recently, online news portal meduza.io. "We advocate for the freedom of information. We defy officials and big business interests, we condemn propaganda and 'jeans' [bought content], and we prioritize fact-based journalism over opinion-based journalism. We report on things that matter," according to meduza.io manifesto.

Timchenko was fired from lenta.ru, one of Russia's biggest online newspapers, last March. Appalled at the decision, almost 70 reporters left with her. Some 20 of them joined meduza.io team which is based in Latvia.

Since the new online newspaper targets Russian-speakers, one of the main challenges can be attempts to block the website in Russia.

Since the beginning of this year, Russian media watchdogs have shut down over 600 sites on extremism charges. Enabling such actions is a new law, passed in early 2014, allowing authorities to block any web site without a court order.

In order to bypass the restrictions, meduza.io is focusing on smartphone and tablet apps. These would allow accessing the content even if internet service providers in Russia blocked the site.

The measures are not superfluous by any means. On the second day after its launch, meduza.io team tweeted that it was blocked in Kazakhstan.

Commenting on the project's future, Radzevičius says its newsdesk is staffed with creative and professional people who will always find ways to practise their trade.

"If it weren't they, others would appear. This is how journalists work - and history remembers people like them, not those who try to silence them," according to the Lithuanian journalist union head.

Martišius of Vilnius University, however, is less optimistic. He thinks that working from abroad might present challenges while Russia-based reporters can face many problems. They need to be paid, Martišius says, and what if someone starts asking about the source of their income.

"I wish them luck and I'd like to see the situation in Russia improve, to see more freedom. Experience over the last years shows, however, that this is not very likely. Putin is now 62, he can rule Russia for 20 more years."

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