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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

MEDIA WATCH: Taxpayers Should Call Tune

People often ask me how many private newspapers there are in Russia and, to my shame, I have no answer for them. Not even a wild guess.

I can't say how many state-controlled newspapers there are either. In fact, I can't say with certainty who owns or controls even those regional newspapers with which I have worked closely for years. Take it from someone who has tried, few things are more difficult in Russia than determining who owns a media property.

None of them print annual reports or financial statements of any kind. Local administrations are not required to report the amount of taxpayer money that is spent subsidizing the press. Media managers refuse to speak of this. At best, one might get gossip about one newspaper from the managers of another, but nothing more.

At the same time, everyone knows that the media in Russia is heavily politicized and that state officials and private business interests routinely manipulate media properties with the goal of shaping public opinion. "Whoever pays the fiddler, orders the music," as the oft-cited Russian expression has it.

Obviously it is crucial to break this cycle in order to create a reasonable environment for honest media in Russia. That is why a study issued this summer by the Moscow Media Law and Policy Institute, or MMLPI, "Power and Capital: Concentration and Transparency in the Russian Media," is a significant landmark. This study is the first stage in a project that, it is hoped, will one day produce a law that will guarantee the right of average citizens to know who is ordering the music.

Consisting primarily of in-depth interviews with more than 100 media managers across Russia, this study could not have come at a better time: It sheds some much-needed light on the intensification of state control of the media in the run-up to the elections.

"A particular type of concentration is taking place in Russia - an ideological or political concentration in which the authorities [primarily local authorities] are creating their own media holdings using money from the federal or municipal budgets," said Anna Kachkayeva, a media expert with Moscow State University who authored the MMLPI study.

It doesn't matter, the study demonstrates, whether a newspaper is an open or closed joint-stock company or who it lists as its "publisher" or "founder" - all the same, it may well be completely controlled by the mayor or the governor or someone acting in their interests.

The study revealed that there are far more "mixed-ownership" newspapers in the regions than had been expected. By "mixed-ownership," the authors mean nominally private media companies that are, in fact, entirely controlled by local authorities and that are in many cases even completely financed from the local budget. More than 30 percent of the managers surveyed who claimed that their newspapers are privately owned flatly refused to name their primary shareholders, leading the researchers to conclude that most likely the list would include close political allies of local authorities.

This complicated situation becomes murkier still when one considers the role of quasi-state organizations such as Gazprom and its multitudinous subsidiaries. Despite its long-standing and enormous tax debt to the central government, Gazprom has nonetheless been able to find funds to create an extensive (but how extensive?) network of local newspapers. The company's general practice is to cede editorial control of the publications it owns to local politicians with whom it sees eye-to-eye.

Obviously, the media ownership problem is one that directly touches the political interests of virtually every member of the State Duma and the Federation Council. If MMLPI drafts a media-concentration law and manages to get it on the Duma's agenda, it will be fascinating to see what the regional press has to say about it. Most likely, though, this quixotic effort will never make it that far.

"No one even asks," Kachkayeva told reporters recently, "on what grounds mayors and governors are using budgetary funds or even extra-budgetary funds to create their own newspapers and radio and television stations." It's high time that the question was raised. After all, if the taxpayers are ultimately paying the fiddler, why shouldn't they be the ones to call the tune?

Robert Coalson is a program director for the National Press Institute. The views expressed here are not necessarily those of NPI.