Russian media roundup: The Russian State Duma introduced controversial anti-terrorism legislation and the independent media holding company RBC found itself under new pressure from the Kremlin.

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. Photo: AP

Last week, Russian media discussed the implications of new measures proposed to fight terrorism at home. In addition, they analyzed the reasons behind yet another independent media shakeup and a new attack on liberal opposition figure Alexey Navalny. The Eurovision song contest, which featured a controversial winner from Ukraine, also attracted the attention of Russia’s journalists.

Measures to combat terrorism and extremism

On May 13, the Russian State Duma approved, on the first reading, a bill toughening penalties for terrorism and extremism. This package of new measures includes several controversial initiatives, such as the deprivation of citizenship and a ban on leaving the country for anyone receiving a warning from the authorities on the unacceptability of extremism. It also included requirements for communications operators and service providers to keep, for a period of three years, all information on e-mails, SMS messages and telephone conversations.

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The Moskovsky Komsomolets newspaper criticized this draft bill, noting that it contains too many contradictions, and does not enjoy the support of either the government or the Russian Supreme Court. Both of these bodies had presented negative comments on the draft bill, which in some parts even contradicts the Russian Constitution (in particular, when it comes to the deprivation of citizenship). In addition, there are concerns that the new rules that will apply to teenagers, which is seen as a disproportionate punishment for crimes committed.

The pro-government Izvestia newspaper supported the Duma proposal, noting that these new measures were related to the latest data about the activities of terrorist groups in Russia. The recruitment of adolescents, from 14 to 16 years of age, on the background of the Syrian military campaign, demands that actions be taken with regard to this section of the population, who are often not in view of law enforcement agencies even though this is an extremely vulnerable and impressionable group of young people. The publication also noted that the lawmakers were simply adopting certain parts of the foreign experience, because already in many Western countries, there are serious efforts being undertaken to combat terrorism among youth.

The independent Slon writes about the response of human rights activists to the introduced amendments. Russian human rights organizations, including the Human Rights Council, believe that these new measures significantly infringe on the rights of citizens. Moreover, they can also be broadly interpreted, which means that completely innocent people could be affected by them. In other words, the latest innovations open up virtually limitless potential for abuse and jeopardize one of the basic rights of every citizen of the Russian Federation – the right to freedom of movement.   

The attack on RBC

Recently, one of the largest media holding companies in Russia – RBC – had come under attack, probably because of the sagging political fortunes of its owner, businessman and politician Mikhail Prokhorov – and even more so because of its independent editorial policy. Last week, there were new developments in this case. After the top management of RBC dismissed the editor-in-chief of RBC Daily newspaper, Maxim Solyus, other high-ranking editorial members also left their posts.

Not surprisingly, other Russian media lamented the latest developments at one of the best business publications and a trendsetter for investigative journalism standards.

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The opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta published an article by political commentator Kirill Martynov. He noted that in the restructuring of RBC, the most to suffer would be competing media and consumers. First, looking at the example of what has happened to RBC, other media will now pay greater attention to self-censorship and succumb more to paranoia.

The editors of the liberal media outlet Meduza published a kind of “obituary” piece on the departure of the editors. In a short time, the media company managed to do the impossible – to assemble a great team, to master the investigative genre, to win over an audience in the millions, and to create a truly worthwhile product. Of course, this did not please the “authorities,” and perhaps out of pure resentment and fear, they decided to rid the country of such a serious player.

The business newspaper Vedomosti explained that the Russian authorities did not like the independent editorial policy of the media company, in particular, the publication of results of investigations related to the president and the people close to him (including Ekaterina Tikhonova, rumored to be Putin’s daughter). There had been previous attempts to force a new editorial policy on the company, but these were unsuccessful, leading to the need to use much more radical measures, including the dismissal of the editors and the threat of fraud charges against RBC, noted Vedomosti.  

New case against opposition leader Alexey Navalny

Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny once again found himself at the epicenter of political intrigue. The Russian General Prosecutor’s Office asked a number of major companies, including Russian oil giant Rosneft and leading airline Aeroflot, to ascertain whether Navalny had committed any illegal acts in relation to these companies during the time he was their minority shareholder. It is alleged that Navalny had used his position of minority shareholder to obtain non-public information about the companies, and then used this for personal gain. The opposition leader has denied these charges, arguing that ahead of the elections, the government needs to bring new charges against him, in order to put an end to all his political ambitions for the next few years.

The business newspaper Vedomosti, quoting Russian political analysts, also pointed to the interest of the authorities to instigate new charges against the opposition leader. This is not only due to the upcoming elections, but also because the term of office of the General Prosecutor Yuri Chaika is about to expire. In 2015, Navalny released a controversial and successful film concerning corruption that featured Chaika. The newspaper also explains that the danger posed by Navalny is associated with his image – he is probably the only one with a relatively free from the taint of corruption.

The opposition Novaya Gazeta newspaper published an article by chief editor Alexey Polukhin, who noted the full absurdity of even the wording in the General Prosecutor’s request sent to the companies – “to provide information about any wrongdoing committed by Navalny.” This fully expresses an undisguised desire to get rid of this opposition leader, using the logic that if “you dig hard enough, you can find dirt on anyone,” Polukhin noted with outrage.

The politics of the Eurovision song contest

Finally, the Eurovision song contest did not pass without its share of controversy. Russian media are discussing the victory of Ukrainian singer Jamala and the controversial third place finish for Russia’s Sergey Lazarev.

The analytical portal Aktualniye Kommentarii writes about the massive politicization of this competition, both in Europe and in Russia itself. The dual voting system – judges plus the popular vote – had been designed to keep the suspense until the very end, but in reality, it provides opportunities to manipulate the results. The publication cites the opinions of senior Russian politicians, who have called the competition “politicized,” and stresses that the organizers of the competition attempt to drag political situations into the Eurovision contest.

The pro-government Rossiyskaya Gazeta newspaper also pointed to the politicization of this contest. The popular vote gave Sergey Lazarev the victory; however, this was overthrown by the votes cast by the judges. As a result, a sense of injustice and frustration exists within Russia over the fact that politics played such an obvious role in the final results.

Artur Gasparyan at Moskovsky Komsomolets disagrees with the view of the contest’s politicization. Jamala performed a touching and beautiful song, and did it professionally – and that is the reason the jury overwhelmingly voted for her. Gasparyan stressed that the people of Russia and Ukraine continue to feel their closeness and want reconciliation, which is the reason why Russian viewers praised the contestant from the neighboring country. This is an important signal for the elites, which are playing politics and which have forgotten that Russians and Ukrainians are fraternal peoples, striving for harmony.

Quotes of the week:

Human rights activist Alexander Verkhovsky on amendments to the law on terrorism: “Let us take, for example, the completely stupid idea of depriving a person convicted of terrorist offenses of citizenship. This is not only anti-constitutional, but also totally meaningless. The last thing that a person preparing to commit a terrorist act is interested in is whether he or she will be deprived of citizenship. They should have proposed denying people quarterly wage premiums as well.”

Alexey Volin, Deputy Minister of Telecom and Mass Communications, on RBC’s problems: “We should not look for political motivations in those things, where, even upon deeper digging, one cannot find such things.”