The Russian State Duma has voted 434-1 to bring in a law to limit foreign ownership of Russian media to 20 per cent, writes Professor Stefan Hedlund.
The Russian version of Forbes Magazine and the Vedomosti business daily are the immediate targets of legislation passed on September 23, 2014. The Vedomosti has been published since 1999, in cooperation between Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, and Russian Sanoma Independent Media, which also publishes the English-language Moscow Times.
This move follows previous bans against Russian websites that have been critical of the government. And it is in line with earlier legislation which forces non-profit-organisations that receive foreign support to register as ‘foreign agents’. The proponents of the bill said it was crucial to introduce the curbs in the view of the ‘information war’ waged on Russia because of the Ukraine crisis.
In addition to limits on foreign ownership, the law also imposes a ban on media outlets being funded or run by foreign groups or individuals, including Russians with dual nationality. As he presented the initiative, lawmaker Vadim Dengin warned that Western media organisations were buying up Russian papers in order to sway Russians, particularly the younger generation.
On a parallel track, the Kremlin is beefing up its own ability to present foreign audiences with news that is of its liking. The main focus here is the highly controversial satellite television network RT, previously known as Russia Today. It was created in 2005, as a counterweight to the American CNN. Since then, its annual budget has increased more than tenfold, from US$30 million to more than US$300 million. Its current budget covers the salaries of 2,500 employees and contractors worldwide, of which 100 are in Washington.
Although the content of its reporting is viewed as biased, its format is highly professional. Programming is glitzy and provocative, and presented by young native English speakers. Its critical coverage of the West is being well received.
RT is already more successful than all other foreign broadcast stations available in major US cities. Two million Britons watch the Kremlin channel regularly.
Coverage of the war in Ukraine has proved to be a real watershed, causing some of its high-profile foreign correspondents to resign in protest. US-based RT journalist Liz Wahl resigned in a live TV broadcast in March 2014 following the annexation of Crimea. And Sarah Firth, London correspondent for RT, left in July in protest over what she felt was dishonest reporting of the downing in east Ukraine of the passenger plane Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17.
But the Kremlin believes it has a winning hand. The budget for RT for 2015 is likely to be increased by 41 per cent. If parallel subsidies to RT subsidiaries are included, the increase comes to a 250 per cent. Broadcasting in German and French is to begin.
RT has succeeded in recruiting United States’ legendary CNN talk show host Larry King, and in June 2014 it broke a YouTube record by being the first TV station to get a billion views of its videos.
The information war is on and the Kremlin is bent on winning.