U.S. streaming giant Netflix is facing the prospect of being forced to broadcast Kremlin propaganda from as early as next week as part of new obligations in Russia.
The move comes as fears increase in the West over how Moscow is leveraging media to sow confusion amid its ongoing war on Ukraine.
On March 1, Netflix will fall under a series of new obligations in Russia after it was added to a register of “audiovisual services” overseen by the country’s communications regulator, Roskomnadzor, last year.
The register applies to streaming services available to the Russian market with at least 100,000 daily users and comes with requirements to broadcast streams of 20 Russian federal television stations. This includes the likes of Channel One, NTV and a channel run by the Russian Orthodox Church, Spa, according to the Moscow Times.
Russia’s Channel One in particular is closely linked to the Kremlin, with a miscellany of some of Putin’s most intimate political allies on the board of the station set to be broadcast across Netflix screens.
This includes the likes of Putin’s top spy Chief Sergey Naryshkin and Alexey Gromov, Putin’s first deputy chief of staff. Gromov’s responsibilities include overseeing the production of state propaganda and Moscow’s broad program of censorship. He had previously served as Putin’s press secretary.
The new broadcast requirements are applicable only to Netflix’s services in Russia, where it has an estimated subscriber base of close to 1 million, based on figures from the firm that manages Netflix’s affairs in Russia.
When pressed as to whether they would comply with the new rules, Netflix did not respond to POLITICO’s request for comment. However, experts say that the U.S streaming giant is unlikely to withdraw from the Russian market, owing to commercial interests.
“It seems unlikely they will reject the new rules and leave,” said Catalina Iordache, a researcher specializing in Netflix’s business. She added that this could be due to the partnerships Netflix has already in place with Russia’s National Media Group (NMG), as well as the money it has bankrolled into the production of Russian content such as the drama series “Anna K.”
In 2020, Netflix announced a partnership with NMG that was brokered by American-British law firm Hogan Lovells. The company at the time had praised the deal as a “game-changer” that would “set new standards for foreign streaming services in Russia.” NMG owns nearly a 20 percent stake in Russia’s Pro-Putin Channel One.
Iordache added that Netflix’s market share steadily increased in 2021, but that there is still a lot of space to grow. “Russia is a large subscriber market which could prove very profitable if that happens,” she said.
Moscow probing Netflix ‘gay propaganda’
More broadly, Netflix’s business in Russia is facing increasing constraints.
In November last year, the Russian interior ministry confirmed that it would examine a complaint leveled by Olga Baranets, the public commissioner for protecting families, regarding the dissemination of “gay propaganda” on Netflix.
If found to be in breach of Russia’s draconian laws against the dissemination of “non-traditional sexual relations,” the company may face fines or a possible suspension of its service.
Elsewhere, Netflix has regularly faced the ire of the Russian administration, which in the past has claimed that the streaming service represents an instrument of U.S. policy. Former Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky said in 2016 that the White House understands “how to enter every home” through Netflix.
While Netflix examines the cost-risk analysis of remaining in Russia, there is the possibility of other Western streaming services coming under the scope of the country’s broadcasting obligations in the future.
Amazon Prime Video is available in Russia, but is unlikely to meet the required thresholds in terms of subscriber numbers to register as an audiovisual service with the Roskomnadzor. Amazon did not to respond to POLITICO when asked about its future in Russia.
HBO Max, meanwhile, has penned a deal with the Russian streaming service Amediateka, which since 2021 has provided an exclusive platform for HBO productions. Disney Plus is not available in Russia.
Despite the anticipated reticence of Netflix to abandon the Russian market, other authoritarian jurisdictions worldwide have deterred the streaming giant from entering local markets. As Netflix publicly discloses, its services are unavailable in China, Crimea, North Korea and Syria.
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