Editors Quit Top Independent Russia Newspaper Amid Crackdown

  • Billionaire Prokhorov’s RBC daily investigated Putin family
  • Journalists’ union chief says political pressure to blame

Accelerating a squeeze on media freedom in Russia, the three top editors left billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov’s RBC, whose flagship newspaper has published investigative reports into President Vladimir Putin’s daughter and son-in-law.

Elizaveta Osetinskaya, editor-in-chief of the RBC media group, Maxim Solyus, editor of the RBC newspaper, and Roman Badanin, editor of the RBC newswire, have all stepped down, the company said on its website on Friday. The Kremlin had signaled to the RBC owner repeatedly that it didn’t like some of its coverage, two people familiar with the matter said. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov denied any pressure was put on the group. A spokesman at Prokhorov’s Onexim holding company, Andrey Belyak, declined to comment.

“I have absolutely no doubt that this decision has a political element,” Pavel Gusev, head of the Moscow Union of Journalists, told Ekho Moskvy radio, adding that the situation was reminiscent of the 2001 takeover of tycoon Vladimir Gusinsky’s NTV television, the largest independent channel, which had become a major thorn in the side of the Kremlin.

Media Crackdown

Since his first election as president in 2000, Vladimir Putin has brought major television stations under state control, pushing much of the opposition discourse onto the Internet. The biggest protests of Putin’s decade-and-half rule in late 2011 and early 2012 triggered a fresh media crackdown. It intensified in 2014 after geopolitical tensions flared over the conflict in Ukraine and affected both print and online publications as well as bloggers.

The RBC newspaper is one of the last independent dailies in Russia dedicating resources to investigative journalism. It has delved into subjects left untouched in state media, such as the funding of Putin’s All-Russia People’s Front, losses of Russian troops in Ukraine and revelations from the Panama Papers. New restrictions on foreign media ownership required Pearson Plc, New Corp.’s Dow Jones and Finland’s Sanoma OYJ to sell their stakes in the Vedomosti daily, where Osetinskaya had previously been editor-in-chief.

Police Probe

Prokhorov, the owner of the Brooklyn Nets and Russia’s eighth-richest man, with a fortune of $10.1 billion according to the Bloomberg Billionaire’s Index, ran for president in 2012 in an election that Putin won in a landslide. Onexim last month denied a report that it’s in talks to sell the RBC media group.

Russian police earlier this week said they’d opened a fraud case involving a company formerly owned by RBC. This followed raids last month of offices of Prokhorov’s Onexim holding company and other businesses. Law-enforcement agencies found some tax violations concerning a bank that Onexim said occurred before the group had acquired it.

Prokhorov took the searches, although they weren’t related to Onexim directly, as a signal to rein in RBC’s editorial policy, the people familiar with the situation said. Shortly after that RBC announced that Osetinskaya would begin a sabbatical in May, four months earlier than planned.

RBC, which in 2015 wrote about business dealings by Putin’s youngest daughter, Katerina, and later the wealth of her billionaire husband Kirill Shamalov, continued its investigative reporting. The last straw was an article this week titled “Oysters Will Be Raised Across From ‘Putin’s Palace’ Near Gelendzhik,” about a planned farm in southern Russia, two other people said. The Kremlin has denied that the palace is linked to Putin.

Staff Exits

RBC in its statement said the departure of the top editors was due to differences over the media group’s future direction. Osetinskaya declined to comment on her Facebook. Several senior journalists and editors said on social media that they plan to leave in the coming weeks.

Derk Sauer, a Dutch businessman who’s been involved in the Russian media industry since the 1990s and is now an executive in Prokhorov’s holding company, said the fraud inquiry which reportedly targets him and other managers is a new step.

The big problem is that an independent judiciary doesn’t exist in Russia, he said in comments published May 11 by NRC Handelsblad, a Dutch newspaper. He couldn’t be reached for comment Friday.

Deputy Communications Minister Alexei Volin said the departure of the RBC top editors was due to losses at the media assets, Interfax reported.

A demise of RBC’s critical coverage will squeeze what is left of investigative journalism in Russia, according to Alexei Makarkin, deputy director of the Center for Political Technologies. “Journalism here is returning to the Soviet mold,” he said.

Shares in RBC PJSC rose as much as 5.4 percent in Moscow after the news of the editors’ departure as investors, before closing up 2.7 percent.

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