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How the Foreign-Owned Media in Russia Provoked the Current Backlash

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The proposed law limiting foreign ownership of media to 20% has provoked criticism both in the West and on the part of the “liberal” media in Russia.

We hear the predictable cry of a "return to state control" and “Soviet practices”.

But the sad reality is that the behaviour of some Western-owned Russian media has provoked this legislation.

Involvement of foreign corporations in the media may have been beneficial in the beginning, but it has long since degenerated into Russia-bashing.

Since 2003 the relentless demonization of “Putin’s Russia” has become increasingly shrill.

Rather than fostering mutual understanding this sort of “journalism” creates a misleading image of an aggressive and dangerous Russia, a place unpleasant to live in. Far from attracting tourism and investment, it deters it.

When it comes to non-political themes this same media is simply exploitative, seeing Russians merely as cash cows by feeding them “sex tips” and trashy talk about the wonders of the west (Cosmopolitan and CTC Media are prime examples).

The Moscow Times, owned by Finland’s Sanoma Media, stands out.

Imagine a foreign owned newspaper in India carrying headlines like “New Delhi is Unlovable or Unlivable”; or in China claiming “the Government is Committing Crimes without Punishment”; In “authoritarian”, “neo-Stalinist” Russia (labels it freely uses), The Moscow Times does precisely that.

Or take the Times’ regular columnist Masha Gessen. Over 10 years she has written hundreds of pieces, one telling readers things like: they live “in a country where secular and religious authorities openly encourage fascist violence”. This is the same “persecuted” Masha Gessen who has published several books in Russia and has sacked hundreds of people whilst heading important Russian media outlets despite her US passport (as an example of her writing read this.)

Or take Alexei Yablokov, a reporter for Vedomosti (a Russian project of The Financial Times and The Wall Street Journal) who wrote last summer whilst standing in line for a patriotic exhibition how he felt “an irresistible desire” to “warm his feet” in the Eternal Flame of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier – the country’s most sacred monument to the 27 million Soviet citizens who died fighting fascism in World War II.

Needless to say Vedomosti had nothing good to say for the exhibition itself, which showed art connected with the last Russian Tsar.

For Russia the dominance of this sort of foreign media (Vedomosti, Kommersant, Profil, etc.) has become dangerous.

Balanced, objective media became a minority long ago. On the pro-Russian side there are only Izvestia and The Expert.

So what is to be done? As a warning to foreign “leaders of opinion” the new draft law is just a gentle slap on the wrist. Purveyors of stories about Moscow being “unlovable and unlivable” will have little difficulty finding Russian collaborators to get round it.

Limits on foreign investment are undesirable.   

The best thing would be for outlets like The Moscow Times and Vedomosti to rediscover basic rules of professionalism and decency.

As business papers they might remind themselves that the sort of things people like Masha Gessen write are of no use to business people whether in Russia or the west.

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