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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Glimpse of the Media Sector in 2109?

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

Do you recall the pitched battles over freedom of speech that marked Putin's accession to the throne? The fight over NTV and TV6, the rallies and demonstrations of support held across the country? The reports delivered in the Council of Europe on freedom of speech in Russia? The intervention on behalf of the journalists by the U.S. government and the European Union? It then seemed to many that Russia was moving inexorably toward the rebirth of totalitarianism.

Then suddenly everything changed, as if someone had waved a magic wand. In June of this year, at a conference called The Media Industry: Directions for Reform, the government and the press reached consensus that the mass media is not just about freedom of speech, but also about business. The government promised to create a business climate in which the press could work honestly and profitably, while the press, for its part, promised to learn how to work profitably and honestly. It was a sort of "velvet revolution" carried out by the very same people, in the very same jobs, who not so long ago were fighting the free speech wars.

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The atmosphere in the media community has calmed to such an extent that last Friday one of the main "persecutors of free speech," Press Minister Mikhail Lesin, met at the Soros Foundation in Moscow with some of the most ardent free speech advocates -- representatives of Western organizations such as USAID, Tacis, the World Bank, the Eurasia and Ford foundations, the Dutch Matra/KAP, and others. The conversation dealt with a very mundane question: how the Press Ministry and foreign donors can coordinate their efforts to improve training for people working in the media sector and to improve the business culture in the sector.

The meeting had its share of sharp exchanges, of course. A representative of the European Union asked Lesin: "You talk a lot about the government getting out of the media market. Is there a timetable in place?" The minister clearly gets asked this question a lot, and he doesn't have a hard-and-fast answer. But Lesin and his staff had done their homework. His deputy, Vladimir Grigoryev, leapt into action, handing out photocopies of an article from Printing Trade Bulletin, a publication put out by the Society of Owners of Printing Establishments in St. Petersburg. The article was dated February 1909.

The article states: "Above all, our publishing entrepreneurs encounter entirely abnormal competition from our state-owned printing houses, which not only monopolize certain aspects of the printing trade, but also undermine prices industry-wide.

"Whereas Austria, Germany, the North American United States and France all have a single state printing house, and whereas England has none whatsoever, here in Russia every regional capital has its own 'state printing house.' Petersburg has more than 20 state printing houses, and Moscow, 10 or so. All of these printing houses not only accept private orders, they even solicit such orders through the newspapers.

"Russian state printing houses need not amortize their equipment nor pay taxes -- in a word, they do not bear all of the expenses that fall inevitably to the lot of private entrepreneurs. Their monopoly on many types of printing ensures them a steady stream of work. Russia's state printing houses are therefore thriving at a time when private printing houses are struggling to make ends meet."

Upon reading this text dating back almost 100 years, I thought to myself: It's just like an editorial in The Moscow Times or Vedomosti about the state of the television industry or privately owned provincial newspapers today. The Ford Foundation representative asked aloud: "And when do you expect the next October Revolution?"

It's really true: The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Alexei Pankin is the editor of Sreda, a magazine for media professionals (