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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Gauging 'Positive Results' in the Media Sector

In the past three years we have done more than just clear obstacles from our path -- though life has forced us to deal with them almost on a daily basis," President Vladimir Putin said in his state of the nation address last Friday. "We have achieved some positive results."

Has the government achieved "positive results" in the media sector? A dozen or so bills on the mass media have been introduced in the State Duma during the past year, leading to the conclusion that the current law must be one of the "obstacles" mentioned by the president. A bill drawn up by the Media Industry Committee, an association of leading Moscow media executives, has been posted on the Press Ministry's web site. There is speculation that Putin himself will sponsor the bill in the Duma.

Should this be viewed as a "positive result?" To answer that question, you need to go back and review how this particular "obstruction" was formed.

The Soviet law "On the Press and Other Mass Media," passed in June 1990, contained provisions crucial to the democratization effort. In particular, it legalized the creation of nongovernment mass media. Existing media were given significant guarantees of editorial independence from the state agencies to which they belonged.

A new, Russian law on the mass media was passed on Dec. 27, 1991. Its guarantees of press freedom and journalists' rights made it even more democratic than its predecessor. The law marked the ultimate triumph of glasnost -- nearly unlimited freedom of expression funded by the state. But the law became outdated in less than a week, when an independent Russian Federation began a radical program of economic reforms that fundamentally altered the mass media's economic situation .

The insufficiencies of the 1991 law, focused heavily on journalists' rights, have become painfully obvious in recent years as market principles have taken root in the media industry and owners and managers have assumed a leading role.

The Industry Committee bill contains several revolutionary provisions in this regard. It introduces a new category, "owners" of mass media companies, to replace the vague and outdated category of "founders" in the current law. It makes it almost impossible for state agencies to form media outlets using public money for purposes other than the publication of official documents.

But the real question, in my view, is whether or not we need a catch-all media law in the first place.
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The media play a special role in the economy and the life of society, of course, but is that role so unique that the media should be regulated separately? Is the "owner" of a mass media company really all that different from the owners of other businesses? Do we need to continue registering the press twice, once as legal entities involving a particular type of property, and again as media outlets? Should a journalist's right to information be defined separately from the rights enjoyed by any citizen? Shouldn't everyone's rights be set down in a freedom of information law? Should the media law regulate the use of broadcasting frequencies, an issue typically addressed in a separate broadcasting law?

When it comes to freedom of speech issues, wouldn't it be wiser to rely on the Constitution and the international treaties to which Russia is a signatory? Wouldn't we be better off passing more specific laws, such as those mentioned above, and introducing provisions on the mass media into existing law, such as the Tax Code, Civil Code, copyright law, and so on? And shouldn't regulation of the relations between owners, management and editorial staff be left to the industry and the market?

Yes, the Industry Committee bill better suits the current situation than its predecessor, and it tackles some pressing problems. But it proceeds from the concrete interests of today's media industry rather than from a long-term vision of the role the mass media should play in building a democratic market society in Russia.

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