Three top editors at the independent Russian media group RBC left the company last week, following several investigative pieces that rubbed Kremlin in the wrong places, including one about a problematic oyster farm. Yesterday, the former editor-in-chief Elizaveta Osetinskaya finally hinted that her being forced out was politically motivated, adding another sad note to the dreary fate of Russia’s choking media landscape.
Mikhail Prokhorov’s publication became “a red rag” after covering the Panama papers, Osetinskaya told The Financial Times in her first interview since the shakeup. When nearly all major Russian media outlets were tap dancing lightly around the massive leak about secret offshore accounts of the world’s most powerful men and their associates—including Putin’s cellist friend with $2 billion—RBC dared to run a story with Putin’s photo as the lead image. (The president’s press secretary would later dismiss the Panama papers as a propaganda hit job on Putin specifically, and all foreign press coverage as “Putinophobia.”)
Shortly after the Panama papers story was published, Russian special agents raided the offices of Onexim, Prokhorov’s holding company in charge of RBC. A mysterious criminal probe was launched against members of the media company. Osetinskaya left on a planned sabbatical months before schedule. Reuters suggested political pressure, which Osetinskaya, at the time, did not confirm this.
On May 11th, RBC published an investigation into a planned oyster and mussel farm next to the so-called “Putin’s Palace,” a massive resort mansion by the Black Sea. (In 2011, a whistleblower said that the seaside complex—spanning eight million square feet with a helipad, a clocktower, a cinema and a casino—was being built for Putin’s personal use. His spokesman denied the claim. RBC reported that a former employee of the palace project was now building an oyster and mussel farm nearby, which could be nifty amidst Russia’s various food embargoes.)
By May 13th, editor-in-chief of the publication Maxim Solyus was fired. Editor-in-chief of the media group Elizaveta Osetinskaya and web editor Roman Badanin resigned in protest, along with several other staffers. More are expected to quit in the near future.
“In a way we’ve become the victim of our own success,” says Derk Sauer, a veteran Dutch journalist who is Onexim executive in charge of RBC. “It’s clear the type of journalism they set out to do is not possible in Russia these days.”
Not long ago, RBC was a bucket of clickbait, mocked for its promotional articles disguised as editorials and accused of paying to inflate its online traffic. RBC’s owner Prokhorov—a billionaire businessman, politician, owner of the Brooklyn Nets—brought in Sauer to re-haul the project. A newsroom was set up. Investigative journalists were hired and they began digging. In a short time, they published investigations into the finances of Putin’s daughter Ekaterina and a $1.75 billion dollar state loan acquired by her husband, into the financial dealings in the separatist republic in Donetsk and the Eastern Orthodox Church—all known no-nos.
Naturally, the Russian government denies the implications that the aforementioned digging had anything to do with the forced exodus of RBC’s top editorial staff. Deputy Communications Minister Alexei Volin claimed that the editors were “fired for idiocy” and that their “incompetence and lack of professionalism” drove the company into a $22.5 million debt. (Comforting no one, the RBC general director Nikolai Molybog cited “disagreements on important issues” as reasons for departure.)
Osetinskaya went on Facebook yesterday to clarify that editors managed the editorial side of the publication, not the business side, implying ever-so-gently that it’s ludicrous to say that they were fired for financial reasons, particularly since they operated on the budget provided to them by the company. “Of course, there was no talk of anything close to a billion and a half [rubles],” she wrote.
Some outlets have speculated that Prokhorov “sacrificed” the editors amidst increasing pressure to sell the media outlet to a Kremlin adjacent oligarch. Latvia-based news site Meduza ran a thorough look at Prokhorov’s media career, including how his oppositional political ambitions could have lead to intensifying trouble with Kremlin—another Russian-language story (translated here) virtually impossible to publish within the country’s limits. (The site was launched in exile in Lativa by Galina Timchenko, who was once the editor of Russia’s most popular political website Lenta.ru, until she was fired for no official reason. Many members of her team followed her to Latvia to start Meduza.)
This month’s fiery mess at RBC is neither the beginning or the end of a systematic dismantling of media. In 2014, opposition news site Grani.ru became the first Russian site to be blacklisted and blocked by the government communications watchdog Roskomnadzor, the same year that Putin signed a law requiring bloggers to register their real names with the government. In 2015, Russia passed a law limiting foreign ownership of media outlets to 20%. Forbes was sold to a Russian businessman who Meduza says started meddling with editorial, so the editor in chief left “voluntarily.” All other international publications have through February 2017 to restructure or GTFO. (For more, here’s a fun little breakdown from Latvia.)
There’s a lot going in the murky pressure swamp, but it’s got a subtle way about it. “The whole process [of intimidation] is as indirect as possible,” an insider told the Financial Times. “Nobody ever comes and says, ‘Oh, what a nice publication you have, it would be a shame if anything happened to it’.”