Russia: Media freedom curtailed under veneer of legality

(Image: /Demotix)

Russia’s media freedom has declined under the government of Vladimir Putin. The president and his allies have used a cloak of legislative legitimacy to target potential opposition to his rule. Mapping Media Freedom correspondents Ekaterina Buchneva and Andrey Kalikh explore what this means for two important sectors of the Russian media.

Print and broadcast media

By Ekaterina Buchneva, Mapping Media Correspondent

Under Russia’s law on mass media amended in autumn 2014, foreign owners are restricted to 20% of shares in media organisations in the country. Its authors said that the legislation would halt the West’s “cold information war”. The law has triggered major changes in the Russian media market and, as critics warned when the law was passed, was used to replace international investors with locals loyal to the Kremlin.

The Russian edition of Forbes magazine, formerly owned by German media conglomerate Axel Springer and known for its independent editorial policy, was sold to businessman Alexey Fedotov, who immediately said that the publication was “too focused on politics” and should cover more business news. In January 2016, the magazine named Nikolay Uskov as its new editor-in-chief. Uslov, a former editor-in-chief of the Russian edition of GQ, has never worked in business journalism.

Finland’s Sonoma Independent Media, America’s Dow Jones and the UK’s Pearson also had to sell their shares in Vedomosti, the main business newspaper known for its critical opinion pieces. Now the paper’s new — and only — owner is Demian Kudryavtsev, a business partner of oligarch Boris Berezovsky, who died in 2013, and a former chief executive of major Russian publishing house Kommersant. Kudryavtsev also purchased The Moscow Times, the country’s only English-language daily. Some journalists were concerned about the origin of the money Kudryavtsev used in the deal and suggested that there was another buyer behind him.

The media ownership law also affected a number of glossy magazines, which, as one of the law’s author said, “squeeze articles favorable to the West and the fifth column in between news about cars and glamorous watches”, and entertainment television channels. CTC Media sold 75% of its shares to loyal to the Kremlin oligarch Alisher Usmanov, who also owns the Kommersant publishing house.

The Russian broadcasters of CNN, Cartoon Network and Boomerang, as well as 11 television channels of Discovery group, came under the control of Media Alliance, 80% of which belongs to National Media Group. The president of NMG, which also owns a number of Russian media organisations, including RenTV, Channel Five, Izvestia newspaper and 25% of Сhannel One, is Kirill Kovalchuk, a nephew of Putin’s old friend Yuri Kovalchuk.

Tightening control over foreign publishers

In addition, in December 2015, another bill with new amendments to the “law about mass media” was introduced into the Russian State Duma. It contains more limitations for media organisations, some of them refer to foreign publishers.

The bill suggests new legal background — violation of anti-extremism legislation — for denying or revoking distribution permit for foreign publishers. Among the ones that now have such permits are Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, China Daily, European Weekly, GQ, Cosmopolitan, Esquire, Tatler, Vogue, and some papers from CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States) countries, including Expert.Ukraine magazine.

“The problem is vagueness and inconsistency of the anti-extremism legislation itself and the practice of its implementation by the Russian authorities,” says Damir Gainutdinov, lawyer of Inter-regional Association of Human Rights Organisations “Agora”.

“It is primarily about Article 1 of the Federal Law on Countering Extremist Activity, which gives a definition of extremism, extremist materials, etc. In practice, this definition is used not only for hate crimes but also, for example, criticism of the Russian authorities. Condemnation of the Crimea annexation is recognised as calls for infringement of the territorial integrity of Russia, as it was in the case of Rafis Kashapov (Tatar activist from Tatarstan, who was convinced in September 2015 to three years in jail for posting informational materials criticising Crimea annexation), and criticism of the United Russia is recognised as the incitement of hatred to a social group, as it was in the case of prohibition of video clips by Navalny (a few activists were found guilty of distribution of extremist materials for posting a video by opposition leader Alexey Navalny titled ‘Let’s recall manifest-2002 to crooks and thieves’, on social media). Therefore, any unenthusiastic article published by foreign media may be recognised as a violation of anti-extremist legislation. Another thing is that this applies only to the print media. Since February 2014, it works much easier with websites; they can be just blocked by orders of the general prosecutor office.”

According to the bill, the foreign publishers also will have to pay a fee for issuing a distribution permit. The authors explained that it would “eliminate the unfair advantage of the founders of foreign publications that provides them with more favorable business conditions”.

Another bill, that was already approved by the State Duma, requires Russian media organisations to inform Roskomnadzor (The Federal Service for Supervision in the Sphere of Telecom, Information Technologies and Mass Communications) about foreign funding, including funding from foreign states, international organisations and Russian NGOs that were considered “foreign agents”. The minimum amount of money that should be declared is 15,000 roubles (less than $200). Penalties for not notifying Roskomnadzor will be fines of 30-50,000 roubles (about $400-600) for officials and the amount of money received for companies. A repeated violation will be punished with a fine of 80,000 roubles (about $1,000) and triples amount of money received.

This bill resembles the one adopted in June 2012 by the Russian State Duma, requiring NGOs to register as “foreign agents”, says Damir Gainutdinov. “First, it is a simple registration and then more and more new burdens will be introduced, for example, state bodies will deny accreditation of such media organisations, officials will be banned from giving them interviews and answering their questions … An additional mandatory audit and special checks of staff could be introduced, who knows what else.”

The bill about foreign funding could affect a number of media platforms – from that cover art and culture to Mediazonа that highlights problems of the Russian justice and the penal system.

Limitations for founders of media organisations

Another block of amendments introduces a new restriction for media founders. It suggests that those, who have unspent or unexpunged convictions for crimes against the constitutional order, public security and public safety, can not found a media organisation.

Those crimes include a number of criminal articles – from hooliganism and repeated violation of rules of organising or holding rallies and demonstrations to espionage and treason. But the most tricky ones are incitement of hatred and abasement of human dignity (Article 282 of the Criminal Code of Russia), public calls for extremism (Article 280) and public calls for infringement of the territorial integrity of Russia (Article 280.1), says Damir Gainutdinov. “These articles are used for persecution of dissenters. In absolute numbers, there are not many cases like this against journalists, but such practice is developing gradually – Stomaknih, Yushkov, Kashapov”.

However, these limitations could not prevent dissenters from taking part in media management at different positions. For example, Pussy Riot members Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alekhina, who were convinced for hooliganism, founded Mediazona platform, but as Tolokonnikova told RBC newspaper, they were not officially registered as founders as they had foreseen possible legal problems.


By Andrey Kalikh, Mapping Media Correspondent

Russia’s environment for freedom of expression on the internet has declined precipitously since 2002 when the law on Counteracting Extremism was adopted. The definition of extremism used in the law is vague and overly broad, according to Aleksandr Verkhovski, an expert on extremism from the SOVA Information and Analytical Centre in Moscow. Verkhovski said that the law was written to keep independent media, oppositional political parties, and “not official” religious confessions under control.

In 2012, the anti-extremism law was amended to empower Roskomnadzor, the state media and communication watchdog, to launch the United Register of Banned Websites. The modifications also enabled the agency to add websites that have “extremist content” without judicial approval. Once a site is added to the list, Russia’s internet services providers are obliged to block it. Within days of the changes, several independent media outlets and political opposition sites websites and blogs —,, Alexei Navalny’s blog — were blacklisted in the country.

On 30 December 2015 a district court in the Siberian city of Tomsk sentenced blogger Vadim Tyumentsev to five years in prison for two videos he posted on his YouTube page.

In the first video, the blogger criticised the local government’s decision to raise the cost of fares on the city’s public transport. In the second video, he said that authorities help refugees from eastern Ukraine more than they help local residents.

The court recognised both of Tyumentcev’s videos as “having extremist character”. Ekaterina Galyautdinova, the presiding judge, gave Tyumentsev a sentence even longer than the prosecutor had pursued. She also banned Tyumentsev from posting online for three years.

The Tyumentcev case is far from the first time that a blogger has been subjected to a prosecution. In 2007, Savva Terentyev, a blogger from the Siberian city of Syktyvkar, was sentenced to a large fine for “offending a social group” – in this case, the local police force – by writing about bad behaviour and human rights abuses committed by officers. In 2012, Maxim Efimov, a blogger from Petrozavodsk, Republic of Karelia, faced prosecution after he posted an article under the headline.

In 2012, Maxim Efimov, a blogger from Petrozavodsk, Republic of Karelia, faced prosecution after he posted an article under the headline “Karelia is tired of priests”, in which he criticised the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church. Efimov left Russia and was subsequently granted political asylum in Estonia.

That same year the Prosecutor General Office blocked the website and blog of Alexei Navalny, blogger and opposition leader, for allegedly calling “for mass disorders”. Navalny was sentenced to the administrative detention for 15 days and faced other accusations related to his political activities.

“Bloggers law”

In August 2014, the Russian State Duma adopted a number of amendments to communication legislation. The so-called “bloggers law” required sites with more than 3,000 visitors a day to register with Roskomnadzor and observe the same rules as much larger media outlets.

Under the amendments, all site owners and social media users are required to disclose their names and email address on their websites. Owners and users must keep all the information published on the web including personal data for at least six months and immediately submit to the law enforcement bodies on demand.

Moreover, Roskomnadzor received the right to request personal information from all site owners and users.

Most recently, as of 1 January 2016, the “bloggers law” requires all websites and social media platforms to keep all personal data of Russian users on servers within Russian territory. Failing to do this means Roskomnadzor can block the site or service. Companies can either comply or cease doing business in Russia.

According to the Roskomnadzor spokesman Vladimir Ampelonski, some foreign companies submitted to the requirement and brought their servers to Russia. However, some companies — Google, Facebook and Apple — have defied implementing this change. Facebook representatives met with the authority’s deputy chief, Aleksandr Zharov. At the meeting the company said it will not observe the law because it is “economically disadvantageous”, the Vedomosti newspaper reported.

Empowering the FSB

After Putin’s re-election in 2012, Russian security service FSB’s powers were considerably expanded. Articles of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation on high treason, espionage and disclosure of state secrets were widened and made ever more vague by introducing language on cooperation with any “foreign organisation, or their representatives in hostile activities to the detriment of the external security of the Russian Federation”.

The FSB has further tried to make investigative journalism more by lobbying members of the State Duma to pass a draft law limiting access to information on commercial real estate transactions. If passed, the law would make it impossible to uncover cases of illicit enrichment by government officials.

This article was originally published on Index on Censorship.

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