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Stifling the press

Fiona Clark, Moscow
February 28, 2016

With 450 seats in Russia’s lower house up for grabs in September’s election, deputies are getting restless and looking for more ways they can stifle press freedoms. Fiona Clark reports.

Image: Reuters/D. Astakhov

Donald Trump may love the "poorly educated" - but it seems the members of Russia's lower house, or Duma, have a penchant for the poorly informed. There are very few independent media outlets left in Russia - most are owned by Kremlin interests such as Gazprom Media or by people with very close ties to the Kremlin.

But that hasn't stopped the fervor of ridding the country of foreign interests spreading from the NGO sector to the media. In 2014 legislators passed what is colloquially known as 'the law on bloggers' which requires anyone with a following of more than 3,000 to register as a media outlet and comply with the same restrictions that larger media companies must follow and they and those that publish them must store all personal data of followers on servers based on Russian territory. The move would allow the government to access that data should they feel the need to do so.

At the time, the well-known blogger and so-called guru of the Russian Internet, Anton Nosik, said the changes could have flow-on effects to social media outlets that carried the blogger's works - if the government didn't like what they saw on sites like Twitter and Facebook it would have grounds to shut them down.

More limits

Now Russian deputies want to amend the blogger's law and are calling for limits on foreign ownership to news media aggregators like Yandex and Google who both have search engines and republish other people's news stories on their site via automated feeds. These news providers don't produce their own content. The stories are often on the search engine's home pages and are becoming a quite popular source of information for Russians.

The amendment also calls for aggregators to be responsible for the editorial content of the stories they have taken from third parties like AP and Reuters as well as a myriad of local Russian news providers. But if a government representative takes umbrage to the content posted by the aggregator it will be obliged to remove it immediately.

One of the amendment's backers, Aleksey Kazakov of Putin's party United Russia, told the business newspaper Kommersant that the main goal of the amendment was "to fill the legislative vacuum" and introduce a law that would regulate this new and uncontrolled business area.

protesters at Kremlin
The planned changes to media laws could further infuriate an already edgy Russian populaceImage: Reuters/T. Makeyeva

"Aggregators have become more influential than mass media. But we don't want to make their work too difficult and in the new bill we [will] only allow state agencies to lodge complaints over aggregators' work, not ordinary citizens," he said.

Cold comfort

Yandex, the country's most popular search engine and a NASDAQ-listed news aggregator, said it would shut down its news service if the bill passes as it simply doesn't have the editorial staff to read the 100,000 or so articles that come from its suppliers every day, Kommersant reported.

And the extension of the 20-percent foreign ownership rules that first affected NGO's and was then extended to mainstream news outlets is now on the cards for aggregators.

"Ideological manipulations do exist and we must control them and bring any foreign influence to a minimum," Kazakov said.

Since the aggregators in Russia primarily reprint stories from Russian-owned media outlets the move seems a little redundant, and according to the TV station RBC, the Kremlin's online media business advisor German Klimenko says he's "confused" by the proposal.

But with about seven months to go until the election a policy of keeping people in the dark may be the preferred option on the Duma floor. The state of the economy is taking its toll on public patience and this weekend marked the anniversary of the assassination of opposition figure, Boris Nemtsov. The legislators may well be feeling a little uneasy and continue to apply that flawed Soviet logic that justifies a further clamp down on sources of information - after all, if you don't tell someone there's a crisis they may not notice - and if they do, it's far better that they think it's someone else's fault and not yours.

Disclosure: Ms. Clark's husband is the market lead for MSN in Russia, an aggregator of Russian and foreign Russian language news.

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