Foreign Media in Russia: How New Restrictions are Breaching Human Rights

President Vladimir Putin of the Russian Federation recently signed into law amendment No. 305-FZ, entitled, “On Amending Russian Federation Law ‘On the Media.’” Published October 14, 2014, the new amendment to the media law tightens the grip the Russian state already has on the press, as foreign ownership was restricted to 20 percent from 50 percent. Effective on January 1, 2016, the amendment passed easily amongst the lower and upper chambers of the Russian Parliament, called the Duma and the Federation Council, respectively. This is resulting from recent sanctions placed on Russia by the West due to international law violations breached in Ukraine and Crimea over the past two years. As such, the imbalance of foreign and Russian ownership in the Russian media ensures further government dominance over its citizens and any foreigners who tune in or read the articles.

This recent amendment, in addition to other media laws enacted in the past few years, directly target freedom of expression and media diversity within Russia and should be regarded as a blatant disregard for human rights. The power that the Russian government has displayed and exerted over these foreigners in Russia serves no purpose other than to control the press, and the ambiguous concept of 20 percent ownership allows for further media corruption. An amendment like this will only further inhibit the media from properly reporting events without government control and frightens potential foreign investors who could have helped thwart the political manipulation.

A Brief History of Russian Media Freedom and Laws

The privatization of Russian media occurred in the post-Soviet era of the 1990s when the Russian Federation was in the midst of “a protracted economic crisis and a prolonged period of political instability and uncertainty.” The fall of the Soviet regime resulted in a complete transformation of the press. As such, it became apparent to Russian legislators that there was a need for “basic legal conditions for the media to operate in the new political and economic conditions.” Several laws were passed, including the largest and most poignant Law on Mass Media (1991). These laws established journalistic independence and objectivity in Russia, “or the separation of fact and value, that many journalists brought back from their internships in Western Europe and the United States.” The 1993 Russian Constitution then promised press freedom for the media, as found in Article 29 in full:

  1. Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought and speech.
  2. Propaganda or agitation exciting social, racial, national, or religious hatred and enmity is not permitted. Propaganda of social, racial, national, religious, or linguistic supremacy is prohibited. No one may be compelled to express his opinions and convictions or to renounce them.
  3. Everyone shall have the right to seek, get, transfer, produce and disseminate information by any lawful means. The list of information constituting a state secret is determined by federal law.
  4. The freedom of the mass media shall be guaranteed. Censorship shall be prohibited.

Independent media sources flourished under Article 29 of the 1993 Constitution. Foreign investors capitalized on a weak Russian economy and lucrative business deals with mass media outlets, which combined with the political instability of the decade allowed for a significant expansion of foreign media owners of both independent and state-controlled media in the 1990s. It was this shift towards privatization and independent media outlets that the Russian government is still fighting to this day, as it will be seen with President Putin’s amendment No. 305-FZ to the Russian Mass Media Law.

Article 18 of the 1993 Russian Constitution solidifies the power of the court in terms of human rights norms. With such terminology and bold language, the questions resonating in many legal and human rights minds are: why is the Russian Constitution being consistently violated in terms of freedom of expression and what actions are being taken by the court to instill the Constitution’s fundamental values? As Herman J. Obermayer, a former media advisor for news corporations in Russia and Eastern Europe, puts it – “Corruption is, of course, endemic in Russia… Breaches of Western ethical standards are not only tolerated, but also sanctioned, sometimes institutionalized.” Duly noted, corruption is not an excuse for the breaching of constitutional rights or international norms in this day and age for such a large and advanced world power.

Despite the presence of this law granting media freedom and being supported by the justice system, it’s necessary to note that a majority of cases infringing upon these laws of the 1993 Constitution do not cite Article 29 as a protection, and there is equally no mention of Article 18’s emphasis on meaning and application of said laws. Thus, it is evident that the Russian Constitution bears no practical use for the media as the laws are not adhered to, which gives way for amendments to be consistently passed and thereby frequently transform the freedom of the media as the Russian political and economic scene shape shifts over time.

Rising Tensions Between Russia and the West

Ten years prior to the 2013-2014 EuroMaidan protests in Kyiv, Ukraine, the Orange Revolution of 2004 sent shockwaves through the Russian government. The European Union supported the moves of the Ukrainian protestors back then as the organization did this past year, further angering the Russian government, which has been consistently pressuring Ukraine to back away from the EU since well before 2004’s Revolution. As seemingly every major power and organization sought to punish President Putin and the Russian Federation for the annexation of Crimea, Russia fought back with passive-aggressive media headlines. Reports of a new Cold War began to surface following counter-media attacks by the West, claiming Russia is spewing propaganda from almost every media outlet. Thus, President Putin signed into law numerous amendments throughout 2014 to further contain what is being released from Russian media.

Amendment No. 305-FZ Itself

Article 7 of the Russian Mass Media Law of 1991 stated that foreign citizens or people without Russian citizenship cannot own a media company. The recent amendment, specifically Article 19(1) in full, signed and published by President Putin has expanded upon this by including “foreign states; international organizations; organizations under their control; foreign legal entities; foreign invested legal entities; stateless persons; Russian citizens holding foreign citizenship.” The further qualification of who can and cannot own Russian media demonstrates how tightly the Russian government is strangling the media’s freedom and diversity; now, even a dual citizen in Russia cannot own a news outlet, which will drive out owners such as Sanoma, the Finnish company that owns The Moscow Times and The St. Petersburg Times. American broadcast news giant CNN has already pulled CNN International from Russian airwaves, and next to go will be “Russian-language versions of Western TV channels available on cable, such as Discovery, TV 1000, Eurosport, and others.” It appears that come 2016, media in Russia will consist almost entirely of Russian Marxist media, unless a few foreign owners manage to survive the regulations of this recent amendment.

In law, spelling, grammar, punctuation, and word choice is crucial. The Russian Federation President’s Council for Civil Society and Human Rights “… stated in its expert conclusion that [the amendment] required considerable elaboration and contained numerous errors, inconsistencies and a priori enforceable provisions that need to be deleted from it.” This is evidence of an inexperienced judicial system if such mistakes of that degree were passed into law. It may be a sign of a hasty approval, which suggests Russia is being pressured to keep the Russian image as wholesome as possible through the controlling of their media. Additionally, the language used within the amendment is quite broad, which allows it to “apply to all media irrespective of their type, profile or coverage area.” It is clear that the language in this amendment is aimed at restricting all forms of media within Russia, which directly threatens media diversity.

As stated earlier, the amendment will be effective January 1, 2016, but pre-existing media companies have an extension date of February 1, 2017 to confirm to the government that they are in complete compliance. The extension date, on the surface, appears to be a liberal amount of time but makes way for foreign owners of Russian media “to find Russian buyers for their shares.”30 Viktor Shkulev, President of Hearst Shkulev Media, a partially foreign media company in Russia that publishes magazines such as Elle and Maxim, stated in a recent interview that, “The passing of this law brings nothing positive to the business environment… When journals that have nothing to do with politics find themselves in a situation where foreign holdings are restricted to 20%, this is hardly a free market situation.” In comparison to the laws stated in the 1993 Constitution, this amendment directly violates the human rights of Article 29(4) by inadvertently and covertly censoring all forms of media. The ownership amendment President Putin signed further exemplifies Russia’s spiral into a moderately authoritarian regime.

As a last argument towards the breaching of human rights, amendment No. 305-FZ is just the legal cherry on top of a nightmare sundae for the media in Russia. President Putin has already signed and published “amendments to the law on foreign investment in ‘companies of strategic importance’’ – meaning that the government will futher monitor any foreign investments in the sectors of the media that it chooses to. A “Draconian” law restriction approved earlier in the year targeted bloggers with audiences totaling over “3,000 daily readers” – also forcing them to register in the same manner as foreign owners of news outlets. Lastly, President Putin banned swearing in the media, a probably difficult move as “swearing is common in two-thirds of Russian companies.” The law did not mention swearing on social media, but again, its broad language allows for a variety of interpretations. As the BBC notes, the law “harks back to the conservatism of the Soviet period, when the Communist party required artists and writers to avoid ‘decadent’ Western fashions and stick to traditional values.” Evidently, Russia’s media policies have made a full circle to Soviet-style ruling in order to prevent Western influence and strengthen Russian dominance in the East, which explains the crack down on Russian media.

The Future of Russian Media

As journalism in general shifts continues its transition into the digital era, blogging and social media have skyrocketed and transformed journalism itself. Social media in Russia has become “an indispensable instrument for any protest movement eager to expose the wrongdoing of the state.” Popular news sites such as BuzzFeed are being warned that they will be banned for publishing certain content that defaces the image of the Russian Federation. In fact, Buzzfeed reported that three weeks ago “[Russia] has also recently toughened laws on internet policing. It has also targeted local news sites, banning access to several that have been critical of Vladimir Putin. Russia maintains a list of blacklisted websites.” As journalism increasingly shifts to the era of listicles, a ban on a news site such as BuzzFeed will have a resounding impact on the younger generations of Russia and certainly infringes upon freedom of expression in the media.

In order for the Russian media to function as a proper, unbiased communication apparatus and to combat Russian government control and/or bans, it may be suggested to increase funding for media assistance programs that aim at improving journalism training at university level. “Unless journalism education standards are changed, editors and reporters will continue to think like their Communist predecessors.” How can the concept of a free press be instilled in Russia if the current and future generations cannot recognize what a free press is?

In conclusion, the radical transformation of the press following the disintegration of the Soviet Union allowed for a more liberal framework of media laws within Russia, but global political tension and conflicts of Russian interest (such as both Ukrainian protests of the past decade) cemented the need for a stronger, more patriotic image in Russian media. The amendments passed by President Putin are testament to the reputation preceding Russia: a strict, authoritarian state that seeks a strong and fearsome image globally. The media in Russia will only change if the fundamental education of young Russian journalists is improved upon by offering a more global perspective, one that will show the extremism of Russian authority in comparison to other governments and press freedom worldwide. In the meantime, Russian media will internally struggle to survive as the government strengthens its grip and investors seek more lucrative business deals elsewhere.