Irina Sherbakova, a Russian historian and publicist, laid out the situation in her home country in an interview with Deutsche Welle last week. “The circle of independent media — be it print press, TV or radio — is becoming smaller. There is only one free online TV channel. Everything else is more or less controlled by the government,” she said.
Deutsche Welle itself could soon face further restrictions, as it emerged this week that Moscow may force the German state-backed media group, which runs both television and news websites in dozens of languages, to register as a foreign agent in the country. Moscow is also targeting a series of US-backed media groups including Radio Liberty, Voice of America, and possibly even CNN.
The move is in retaliation to a demand from the US Justice Department that Russia Today, the state-owned Russian broadcaster, register as a foreign agent in the United States. RT has obliged, but sharply criticized the request as an attack on free press. Officials in Berlin and the United States fear Moscow is using the dispute as an excuse to tighten controls on its own, already fragile, independent media.
“The German government should make clear that a tightening of media laws in Russia would damage bilateral relations.”
It wouldn’t be the first time that a European company has, perhaps unwittingly, been caught in the crossfire of a spat between the United States and Russia. The most prominent example was a row over tightening US economic sanctions on Russia earlier this year. That effort has put many of Europe’s business, particularly energy firms that have much closer ties to Russia, in a dangerous spot. It also forced Berlin into the uncomfortable position of lobbying against the sanctions law.
In the US, the crackdown has mostly been aimed at punishing Russia for interference in domestic politics. While the Trump administration is being investigated for possible contacts with Russia in the run-up to the 2016 elections, US lawmakers and government agencies have pushed ahead with efforts to punish Russia for its alleged meddling.
While calling out state propaganda might be good on its face, the danger is that Washington might actually be making things worse rather than better. “This really has very little to do with RT – it’s about the law of unintended consequences,” Gabe Rottman, Washington director of PEN America, a literary association that advocates for free speech, told Handelsblatt Global. “Already Russia is talking about applying similar regulations to German and American outlets, and an equally serious question is what happens if the US government uses this as precedent to clamp down on news that’s merely critical of the Trump administration in the guise of going after propaganda.”
Berlin is concerned about the repercussions, too. “Russia is showing above all that it wants to restrict opinions in the year before presidential elections,” Roderich Kiesewetter, the foreign policy spokesperson of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats in parliament. “The [German] government should make clear that a tightening of media laws in Russia would damage bilateral relations.”
Germany’s journalist association, the DJV, also sharply criticized the move. DJV head Frank Überall called it a flagrant attempt to “gag” free and foreign press in the country. He, too, said that Berlin must send a clear message to Russian President Vladimir Putin that such a step is inexcusable.
A tightening of Russia’s media laws was approved by four factions in the Russian parliament Tuesday and could be voted on as early as Wednesday. Exactly what registering as a foreign agent would mean remains unclear, but the move would be based on a controversial 2015 law requiring dozens of nonprofit organizations to register as foreign agents, forcing them to submit to tougher checks on their finances, provide details of staffing and even designate themselves as a “foreign agent” on materials handed out in Russia.
Deutsche Welle is one of the few foreign media organizations with influence – albeit limited – inside Russia. Its television station is available on Russian cable in English and German. DW also has a Russian website and broadcasts on the internet. While it might be more of a niche player, it is cited even by Russian media outlets.
Russian officials insist the move is not aimed at cracking down on independent media sources. Some also charge that Deutsche Welle, in any case, doesn’t fit that description: “Deutsche Welle no doubt belongs to media that are leading a propaganda crusade against Russia,” Vitaly Tretyakov, a Russian journalist and political expert, told Handelsblatt. Limiting its movements was therefore the right course of action, regardless of what happens to RT in the United States, he said.
That’s a charge that Deutsche Welle spokesman Christoph Jumpelt denied as “factually completely wrong.” While it may be state-funded, the organization’s goal is to facilitate a free exchange of ideas. Mr. Jumpelt said the company has not officially been informed of any new restrictions by Moscow, and so is offering little official comment. He did say, however, that putting additional bureaucratic hurdles in DW’s path would “make little sense.”
Christopher Cermak is an editor with Handelsblatt Global currently based in Washington DC. Dietmar Neuerer is a political correspondent for Handelsblatt in Berlin and Andre Ballin is a correspondent for Handelsblatt in Moscow. To contact the authors: firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com