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Foreign-funded mass media might share foreign agent status with foreign-sponsored NGOs

July 19, 2012, 17:49 UTC+3 Alexandrova Lyudmila

Along with foreign-sponsored non-government organizations (NGOs) involved in political activities, the “foreign agent” status might be assigned to mass media funded from abroad. A bill to this effect was submitted to the Russian State Duma lower parliament house on Wednesday. It might be passed into law already this autumn, says its author, lawmaker Yevgeny Fyodorov of United Russia. The United Russia party leaders however are dissociating themselves from it. Nonetheless, experts and lawmakers seem to be worried about it.

According to Fyodorov, article 2 of the Law On Mass Media, which interprets the law’s notions and terms, should be supplemented with one more notion, that of “mass media – foreign agents.” It will be applicable to mass media receiving financing or property from “foreign states, their state bodies, international or foreign organizations, and foreign citizens.” The bill binds such mass media to inform their audience about their foreign sponsors, indicating this information in publisher’s imprint or television licensing details.

These obligations will be applicable to Internet media as well. “Viewers or readers must know that, say, a television channel they are watching receives money from a foreign source, the United States, for example. And when this television channel begins to canvass for this of that candidate for governor, he is the subject of interest of the United States and this governor will work for them,” Fyodorov said.

At the same time, he says he means only “political” money. Thus, in his words, a mass media body will be qualified as a foreign agent only in case it, for instance, has a contract with any of the divisions of the United States’ Department of State. Thus, foreign financing is not enough to list a media body as foreign agent: it should be “engaged in the interests of foreign sources.”

“It is a logical step stemming from the law on the ‘foreign agent’ status of non-government organizations,” the bill’s author stresses. “The more so as that the influence mass media have in society is maybe even bigger than that of non-government organizations.”

Like non-government organizations, under the law approved by the Federation Council upper parliament house on Wednesday, mass media bodies, under Fyodorov’s bill, will be obliged to register as foreign agents. A special register will be maintained by an “executive body authorized by the Russian government.” Such media bodies will have to mark their products with special signs reading that these products “are made and distributed by a mass media organization – foreign agent.”

Along with the notion of the “foreign agent status,” according to Fyodorov, the law should be supplemented with a provision imposing special reporting and auditing procedures on such mass media. Such media should be obliged to report to an authorized agency about spending targets in respect of the funds and property they receive from foreign sources. More to it, they will be obliged to report about actual spending.

Fyodorov says it will be a “law on truth,” since it will be applicable to “thousands” of regional mass media financed from abroad.

Leaders of the ruling United Russia party however are refusing to have anything to do with Fyodorov’s initiative. On Monday, deputy secretary of the United Russia General Council, Alexei Chesnakov, said the party did not plan to initiate amendments to the Law On Mass Media. Sergei Zhelezhyak, United Russia deputy speaker of the State Duma, referred to the bill as a “personal initiative of lawmaker Yevgeny Fyodorov.” “The faction has never discussed the issue of such a bill and I think that by now the ideas advocated by the bill’s author have already been realized in the current law,” he said.

The Russian Public Chamber’s mass media commission has pledged to scrutinize the bill. “I think such amendments must not be proposed to the State Duma at all,” the Vzglyad electronic newspaper cites the commission’s chairman Pavel Gusev.

“Anyone who is aware of the insides of economic aspects of media activity knows only too well that the budget of any mass media originates first of all from advertising,” and advertising proceeds are outside the bill, the Kommersant newspaper cites director general of the National Circulation Service agency, Igor Yakovenko. If the lawmaker is worried about politics-oriented mass media, according to Yakovenko, “practically none of them receives money from outside Russia.” At the same time, he admitted that some regional media do use foreign grants, but these grants could hardly be called substantial, while such publications as the Forbes magazine or the Vedomosti newspaper, not to mention the bulk of glossy magazines, are published under licenses and earn their money through advertizing. And the Radio Liberty is already registered as a branch of a U.S. media organization in Russia.

In the mean time, head of the presidential human rights council Mikhail Fedotov has said that “attempts to put any kind of iron curtains give birth to such odd bills which are characteristic of certain mental diseases.” The bill’s author “is too late” with his amendments, Fedotov noted. Russia’s law on mass media prohibited foreign citizens to set up media bodies in Russia as far back as 1991. And from 2001, no foreign citizen may have more than 50 percent in an authorized capital of electronic media. Moreover, Russia has a law limiting foreign investments in strategic sector, and mass media is one of such sectors. “These laws have all the answers to the question Fyodorov is so anxious about,” the human rights activist stressed.

MOSCOW, July 19