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At Russian Business Daily 'Vedomosti,' Gloom Over New Media Legislation

If passed by the Federation Council and signed by President Vladimir Putin, the bill would force Russia's top business daily to relinquish its Western ownership.

MOSCOW -- It looked business as usual in the newsroom of the Russian daily "Vedomosti," located in a converted furniture factory where the salmon pink walls match the signature color of the newspaper's pages.

Some journalists chatted on mobile phones. Three employees huddled around a computer and shared a quiet joke. Others in the airy, open-plan hall typed with deadlines approaching.

But the mood here has soured this week.

Legislation that requires foreign-owned media like "Vedomosti" to shed all but 20 percent of their foreign ownership, purportedly to protect Russians from an "information war," sailed through the State Duma on September 26 with almost unanimous support.

If passed by the upper house, the Federation Council, and signed by President Vladimir Putin, the bill means Russia's top business daily will have to relinquish its Western ownership, which has been a guarantor of the paper’s editorial independence and inoculated it against murky Russian media practices.

"Everyone is, of course, dispirited," says Tatyana Lysova, the newspaper's editor in chief. "This bill itself is groundless, harmful, and demonstrates a mistrust of us. It, of course, creates uncertainty. We don't know where our publication will be in a year and who it will belong to. In such circumstances, it is difficult to remain enthusiastic, hopeful, or positive."

"Vedomosti," which is 100 percent foreign-owned, is one of several media brands, including the Russian-language edition of "Forbes" and glossy magazines like "GQ," that will have to close operations or be sold to Russian interests. The bill is purportedly designed to beef up national security but comes amid a broader clampdown on media and the Internet in Russia.

Lawmakers argue that the bill brings Russian media law in line with Western legislation and protects media consumers from foreign investors at a time when accusations of "fifth columnists" are increasingly on politicians' lips.

Tatyana Lysova: "Everyone is, of course, dispirited."
Tatyana Lysova: "Everyone is, of course, dispirited."

But Lysova says the legislation is redundant as editorial independence from media owners is already enshrined in law.

"Our deputies should know the law better," she says.

Since it was founded in 1999, "Vedomosti" has carved out a niche as one of the most reliable sources of information in Russia.

Lysova is disgusted at the insinuation by lawmakers that her newspaper could serve as a platform for propaganda.

"The very idea of considering media to be propaganda that we need to be protected from bears the wild stamp of the Cold War. Mass media doesn't work like that," she says.

Just this month, "Vedomosti" marked 15 years since it was founded as a joint venture between the "Financial Times," "The Wall Street Journal," and Sanoma Independent Media, the publishing house that founded "The Moscow Times."

With its independent editorials, data-driven investigations, hard-hitting columns, and reputation for reliable business news in a shadowy media landscape, it quickly established itself as one of the most authoritative and reliable media brands in Russia.

This year, it has taken the lead on major stories, including the arrest of multibillionaire Vladimir Yevtushenkov and the insider infighting for control of his Bashneft oil company, as well as on how the Kremlin is dipping into pension funds to keep the budget ticking over.

It has not shied away from critical opinion pieces, such as one penned by Andrei Zubov, a state university professor until he was subsequently fired, in which he likened the Kremlin’s Crimea grab in March to Nazi Germany's Anschluss with Austria in 1938.

"Vedomosti" was sued successfully in August by Igor Sechin, the powerful CEO of Russia's largest oil company, Rosneft, for an editorial in which it was ruled to have defamed him.

"Vedomsti's" main rival is the "Kommersant" business daily that is owned by Alisher Usmanov, a well-connected multibillionaire.

Founded as a broadsheet, "Vedomosti" shrank to tabloid size in a bid to prop up and even grow its circulation of 75,000. The website averages 4 million visitors a month, Lysova says.

The new legislation threatening "Vedomosti" emerged amid a broader media shakeup that has accelerated during the Ukraine crisis and seen the Kremlin tighten its grip on information.

State agencies RIA Novosti and Voice of Russia were integrated under the Rossiya Segodnya brand, with pro-Kremlin pundit and TV presenter Dmitry Kiselyov put at the helm.

The liberal-leaning television station Dozhd TV, or TV Rain, was forced off satellite and cable in February. That same month, the director of the radio station Ekho Moskvy was dismissed and replaced with a state media editor in a sign of pressure on its editorial policy.

Online, popular bloggers have to register with the state. Abroad, the Russian government has ramped up funding for the pro-Kremlin RT television station that has proved a key foreign policy tool for Russia.

In Lysova's opinion, the Ukraine crisis and the rise of "national security" as an item on the political agenda have paved the way for stringent, repressive measures to be passed without discussion.

"It's enough to say that it's security and that you are trying to protect the motherland," she says. "Anyone who protests is meant to seem against security. I don't agree at all that the presence of foreign investors in mass media in some way threatens our security."