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Russia: Media Decree Targets Internet, Digital TV

  • Floriana Fossato

http://gdb.rferl.org/35C4B1BA-3A39-432A-A075-298FFF078E34_w203.jpg --> http://gdb.rferl.org/35C4B1BA-3A39-432A-A075-298FFF078E34_mw800_mh600.jpg Russia could switch to digital by 2008 (epa) On March 12, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree merging the Federal Service for Media Law Compliance and Cultural Heritage (Rosookhrankultura) and the Federal Information Technologies Agency (Rossvyaznadzor) into one.

Broadcasting licenses are currently issued and revoked by the Federal Service for Media Law Compliance and Cultural Heritage, which is part of the Culture and Mass Communications Ministry. Technical licenses for the transmission of data are issued by the Information Technologies Agency, which is part of the Information Technology and Communications Ministry. The newly formed agency is due to start work within three months, during which time parliament is expected to amend current media legislation and the government will introduce some new regulations concerning the functions and powers of the Information Technology and Communications Ministry.


Media Law Compliance and Cultural Heritage head Boris Boyarskov was named head of the new agency on March 26. Boyarskov, originally from St. Petersburg, has worked in the security services, and is considered close to the first deputy head of the presidential administration, Igor Sechin.


Boyarskov told RFE/RL's Russian Service on March 19 that Putin's decree was "the result of the work of the broadcasting commission headed by [First Deputy Prime Minister and presidential hopeful] Dmitry Medvedev." That intergovernmental commission was set up last year. Boyarskov added that the commission "highlighted the significant differences" existing between the Culture and Mass Communications Ministry and the Information Technology and Communications Ministry on broadcasting issues. He also said that, at Medvedev's request, he headed the working group that assessed the viability of combining the two agencies.


Tightening Internet Control


The merger has been interpreted largely as an attempt to control the Internet, the only sphere of media and communications that is currently free of regulation. This lack of regulation has turned the web into an island of freedom of speech and the number of users continues to grow. But despite intense speculation that the authorities want to establish control over the Internet, the Ministry of Information Technology and Communications has maintained a hands-off policy to date.


Most observers have leapt to the conclusion that the Internet is the main target of the merger, as legislators have repeatedly called for more stringent control. However, Boyarskov's words seem to corroborate the opinion of a smaller number of experts, who consider that the primary issue Russian officials are currently concerned with is the transition from analogue to digital broadcasting, which has huge political and economic implications. Those experts consider the anticipated consequences of the merger for the Internet, and for Internet service providers (ISP) specifically, as essentially a side effect.


Digital TV


In May 2004, the Russian government joined the European Digital Video Broadcasting standard for television and declared that a new digital broadcasting system would be ready by 2008. The digital switchover will increase the number of television channels available to the population. Some 25 percent of Russians -- mainly in rural areas - currently receive only two national channels. Digital television, which uses smaller channel bandwidth, would have more space for niche television channels and other services, rendering almost impossible the task of controlling broadcasts.


The merger could mean new Internet regulation

Andrei Richter, director of the Media and Law Institute, said in a recent article that if 100 new television channels were to start broadcasting across Russia, the authorities would seek either to create the implausible situation in which most viewers will watch only the leading three federal channels (Pervy, Rossiya, and NTV) fully loyal to the Kremlin, or would try to make sure that the new channels are "97 clones" of the three leaders.


Equally importantly in a country with such high levels of corruption as Russia, the budget assigned for the switch to digital over six years is reportedly $4 billion, and various government agencies have been competing for a slice of that sum or control over how the money is to be spent.


The discussion between the two regulators has been very heated. It was expected that the special working group headed by Boyarskov would reach a deal by March. However, the recommendations of the working group have not been made public ahead of Putin's decree.


Elections


During his March 19 interview with RFE/RL's Russian Service, Boyarskov hinted that at an undisclosed moment the new agency could be split again, or restructured once more. Merging agencies overseeing the media is a recurring practice in the run-up to elections in Russia. Before Putin was first elected president in March 2000, the then-Press and Information Ministry, headed by Mikhail Lesin, was merged with the Federal Commission for Television and Radio Broadcasting. That merger created a powerful structure that propelled the relatively unknown Putin to wide popularity.


Seemingly contradicting other officials who have said that the merger will improve efficiency by putting a single entity in charge of both media content and technology, Boyarskov said that "it would not be logical to leave regulation in this situation for a long time. A certain degree of specialization should exist." He noted that the Information Technology and Communications Ministry is responsible in the first place for the development of digital broadcasting in the country and that it will "probably" continue to oversee the issuing of technical licenses for the transmission of data.


As far as Internet regulation is concerned, it is expected that new rules may be introduced, increasing the responsibility of ISPs for content and making compulsory the registration of Internet media. The existing System for Operational-Investigative Activities (SORM2) currently requires security authorities to obtain a warrant prior to checking users' electronic traffic.

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