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Russia Moves To Protect Its 'Information Sovereignty'

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Russian lawmakers have approved a bill that would limit foreign media ownership in the country to less than 20 percent. Critics say the measure means big changes for Russia's media landscape and much tighter controls of information by the Kremlin. NPR's Corey Flintoff reports from Moscow.

COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: The bill targets nearly half the publications on display at this news kiosk in Central Moscow. The offerings include business journals such as Forbes, as well as Russian editions of glossy magazines from Playboy and Cosmopolitan to Vogue and Harper's Bazaar.

President Putin is expected to sign the measure into law next week. And if he does, these publications will have to sell most of their shares to Russian buyers or else out shut down. Lawmakers who sponsored the measure say it's necessary to curb foreign influence on Russia's information space. This is Sergei Naryshkin, chairman of the lower house of Parliament talking about the bill.

SERGEI NARYSHKIN: (Through translator) This is international, standard practice. When national lawmakers protect their own markets, the goal is clear - to protect national sovereignty.

FLINTOFF: Other lawmakers go further. They say Russia is defending itself in an information war against the west, and that means protecting so-called information sovereignty. Critics say the foreign-owned publications that are seen as most subversive include Forbes and the Business Daily newspaper Vedomosti, which is co-owned by the Financial Times, The Wall Street Journal and the Russian publishing house Sonoma. Both often run articles and columns that are seen as critical of the government and its connections with Russian business.

The legislation has run into a lot of criticism in the Russian media sphere. This is Pavel Gutiontov of the Union of Russian Journalists.

PAVEL GUTIONTOV: (Through translator) To put it mildly, you could say this bill isn't well thought out. No one has explained to me how our press will become better and more honest if we refuse foreign financing.

FLINTOFF: Gutiontov says most complaints from the public about media in Russia are launched against the state-run media on the grounds that they spread disinformation about issues like the conflict in Ukraine. Masha Lipman, an independent media analyst in Moscow says the legislation is part of a Kremlin trend toward self-isolation in Russia, isolation that's hurting the economy.

MASHA LIPMAN: It will go much farther than just a few political publications that have foreign ownership. It has to do with channels such as Walt Disney or Discovery Channel. We have all these in Russia now. So it will affect the market, no question about that.

FLINTOFF: The Moscow Times, a foreign-owned, English-language daily newspaper says the legislation could affect thousands of jobs in Russian publishing and drive down the overall quality of Russian media for lack of competition. If it's passed, the legislation would take effect in 2016 and give media owners another year after that to comply. Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Moscow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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