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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

MEDIA WATCH: Ref Should Let Players Play

Every time Press Minister Mikhail Lesin opens his mouth, I scratch my head and wonder exactly which country he is living in. This was the case last July, when he first assumed office with a declaration in Kommersant that "the defense of the state from the free mass media is a very serious matter at present."

Lesin also told the paper that the state has no way of influencing the editorial content of nonstate media. Using Kommersant itself as an example, Lesin said, "We have, unfortunately, no way of influencing, say, Kommersant." Leaving aside the highly debatable truthfulness of this assertion (I would be extremely surprised if the staff of Kommersant would agree with Lesin), please note Lesin's use of the word "unfortunately," which speaks volumes about his mindset.

This week, Lesin did it again with an interview published in Izvestia on Monday. Even in the few instances when I agreed with Lesin, I still found myself scratching my head. For instance, without giving any details about what he has in mind, Lesin correctly notes that "now it is clear that Russia needs a law on political advertising." He also criticized the existing law on election coverage, which is written in such a way that "the mass media basically have no right to even mention the name of any candidate or party."

The amazing thing about these comments is the timing. What was the minister doing over the last six months while the election laws were being drafted and adopted? Doesn't Lesin think that one month before the presidential election is a bit late to be raising the issue of a law on political advertising?

But it is Lesin's analysis of the print media market that is most disconcerting. Lesin, relying on statistics regularly issued by his ministry, claims that there are 30,000 print publications in Russia. Anyone who knows Russia knows that the difference between the number of registered publications and the number of publications that readers can actually find and read is vast indeed.

A representative of the National Press Institute visited the city of Nizhny Tagil last month. A visit to the local Press Ministry office produced a list of 22 registered local newspapers, and a trip to a kiosk revealed just seven local papers, three published by local government agencies, one apparently nonstate weekly and three advertising or specialty publications. The story is the same elsewhere, except that most smaller towns are not even lucky enough to have a single nonstate paper.

Last summer, I myself tried to register a publication; workers in the Moscow registration office told me that as many as 20 to 30 publications per day were being registered in connection with the December elections, and that it would take the office not less than five months to get around to my application.

Which brings us to Lesin's remarks on the press market and the interaction between state-subsidized and nonstate newspapers. "Budgetary financing of state media outlets seriously changes their position in the market," Lesin said. "Private mass media, not having government subsidies, naturally find themselves in very severe competitive conditions. But I think that the form of ownership should not influence a company's position in the market - all companies should be equal, as guaranteed by the Constitution."

Lesin then repeats his previous statements that the role of the government is to create civilized "rules of the game" that will ensure this equality. He seems to think that rules can be written that will, on the one hand, allow the state to finance and control its own media outlets and, on the other, free up nonstate media from reliance on politically motivated cash infusions.

Maybe a simple analogy will help the minister see the absurdity of this position. In most towns in Russia, the struggle between state and nonstate newspapers is like a football match in which the referee has a profound vested interest in the victory of one of the teams. Under such conditions, in most towns the nonstate team has either never showed up at all or has long since headed home. In the rest, they remain on the field solely due to corrupting financial support from the referee's political opponents.

The rules of the newspaper game in Russia will never be fair until the referee stops playing.

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