MOSCOW — In a move that will significantly constrict Russia’s fast-shrinking space for independent reporting, Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday signed into law a measure that will curtail foreign ownership of media outlets in his country.
The decision extends the Kremlin’s control over some of Russia’s most prominent independent publications, a few of which have broken news critical of Putin and his allies at a time when tensions between Russia and the West are at their highest level since the Cold War.
The move comes as Russia’s powerful state-run media has labored round-the-clock to glorify Putin and denigrate groups perceived to be the nation’s enemies. Leaders of those outlets — the sources of news for the vast majority of Russians — are unapologetic and open about their efforts as propagandists, a term they use to describe themselves.
Even though Putin long ago consolidated his control over television and many print news outlets, there had been independent options for the smaller set of Russians who sought alternative voices for news, and the Internet was a particularly unregulated space. But over the past year, one news source after another has been blocked, closed or editorially redirected.
The bill quietly signed into law on Wednesday will limit foreign ownership of media assets to 20 percent by the beginning of 2017.
“We understand very well that those who own information own the world,” lawmaker Vadim Dengin, the author of the bill, said during a parliamentary debate before the law was approved. “When foreigners come here to make money and then actively influence the media market and use it for their own benefit, at this moment, I want to say that I am ready to close down Russia and ensure its security.”
Dengin, a member of the nationalist LDPR party, said a “cold information war” was being waged against Russia.
The law deals the sharpest blow to Russia’s most prominent independent daily newspaper, Vedomosti, which aspires to Western standards of journalism.
Vedomosti is co-owned by a tri-national consortium — Dow Jones, the Financial Times Group and Sanoma, a Finnish media company — and focuses on business reporting, a sensitive topic given Russia’s tanking economy and dim prospects for the future. The newspaper has chronicled the troubles of Russia’s most powerful companies as the economy has slowed and Western sanctions have taken hold.
“Our politicians have developed a mania of control,” said Tatiana Lysova, Vedomosti’s editor in chief. “We do not report to the Russian authorities, so that is why we are a potential danger in their mind, a potential enemy.”
“If Vedomosti gets a Russian owner, there will definitely be pressure on him,” Lysova said.
International ownership had guaranteed Vedomosti’s objectivity, experts say, and helped the paper withstand Kremlin pressure.
“I cannot imagine how a Russian owner would say, ‘We have to speak the whole truth and nothing but the truth, despite the political risk,’ ” said Fyodor Kravchenko, a managing partner at the Moscow-based Media Lawyers Collegium. “We are much more ready to find compromises in this sphere than international investors.”
Representatives of all three of Vedomosti’s owners declined to comment.
Forbes Russia, a magazine that is owned by Germany’s Axel Springer publishing house, also reports on politically sensitive topics and is considered one of the main targets of the new restrictions.
For the Kremlin, “in general it’s easier to have controlled media than non-controlled media,” said Elizaveta Osetinskaya, a former editor of Forbes Russia who is now the editor in chief at the RBC Group, a business-focused media consortium owned by Russian tycoon Mikhail Prokhorov. It also seeks to report independent news and was the first national news outlet to report in August about the funerals of Russian soldiers who died fighting in eastern Ukraine.
“Right now society doesn’t think it needs free media,” Osetinskaya said.
Representatives from Axel Springer did not respond to a request for comment.
The latest crackdown on the media started in December, when the editorially independent but state-run news agency RIA Novosti was liquidated and replaced by a new agency called Rossiya Segodnya, or Russia Today, run by Dmitry Kiselyov , an ardent Kremlin supporter. In January, Russia’s only independent television channel, Dozhd, was cut from the airwaves; now, it is confined to the Internet. In March, Internet regulators charged several opposition news Web sites with extremism and blocked them within Russia.
Also in March, the hard-hitting editor of Lenta.ru, another prominent independent news Web site, was replaced. Most of the staff resigned, and the site’s independence has quickly eroded. The editor, Galina Timchenko, moved to Latvia, saying she wanted to be free of the Kremlin’s control. This month, she launched a new site, Meduza.io.
Even many glossy media outlets in Russia are owned either by foreigners or by Russians through foreign holding companies. The new regulations will affect a slew of these outlets, from the Disney Channel to Russia’s version of Cosmopolitan.
The law prompted some bitter humor. Russian Maxim posted a mock-up of a 2017 issue of “Comsomolitan,” a play on the name of the Soviet youth organization.
In it, the headlines tweaked the state-backed social conservatism currently popular here. “Kisses before marriage? Experiments for risk-takers,” one read.
State television — the well-funded and primary news source for most Russians — broadcasts slickly produced programs that focus on news that is either at sharp variance with that available in the West or is cherry-picked to bolster the Kremlin’s image.
At a time when the government is cutting social spending and freezing state pensions, funding for state media is going up. The international arm of Russia’s state-run news network, RT, once known as Russia Today, is getting a 30 percent funding bump in the proposed 2015 budget, and other state news outlets also are receiving injections of cash.
One news show over the weekend on Russia’s flagship First Channel set about proving the Ukrainian government’s guilt in the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over rebel-held territory in eastern Ukraine in July. It also said that Russia’s Bank Rossiya, a target of Western sanctions, has not been affected by the measures; that Italian farmers are facing problems from Russian bans on European food imports; and that Ebola may be the result of “biological weapons.”