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The dismantling of the independent news organization ‘RBC’ How Russia gained and lost a great source of news

Source: Meduza
Photo: Alexey Zotov / TASS

The editorial staff at the independent news organization RBC has been dismissed, marking the end of that media outlet as we've come to know it. Meduza summarizes what RBC accomplished under the leadership of chief editor Elizaveta Osetinskaya, how pressures mounted on RBC's editorial staff, and how the media holding came to announce today's dramatic turnover.

Elizaveta Osetinskaya's team arrived at RBC soon after the billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov bought the news organization in late 2013 and early 2014. The team included not just the chief editors Roman Badanin and Maxim Solyus, who are leaving RBC with Osetinskaya, but also dozens of other journalists from Russia's various business news publications, especially Forbes and Vedomosti. Together, they managed to transform a publication with a dubious reputation (RBC had many times been accused of running promotional articles under the guise of editorials, and also of spending money to inflate its online traffic) into Russia's leading source for news on business and socio-political news. Some of RBC's most in-depth reports included daring investigations of business dealings conducted by people close to Vladimir Putin, as well as stories about his alleged daughter, the Russian Orthodox Church, the economy of the separatist republic in Donetsk, and much more.

In the spring of 2016, rumors started circulating that officials in the Kremlin were unhappy with RBC's editorial policy. Kremlin spokespeople made no official comments about the news organization, but it's been clear since April that RBC has faced growing pressures to dial down its independent reporting. On April 20, Elizaveta Osetinskaya announced that she would be taking a year-long sabbatical to participate in an international program in California held at Stanford University. Strangely, Osetinskaya said she'd be stepping down in May, though the program doesn't begin until September. The news agency Reuters reported that her early departure was connected to pressure from the Kremlin.

A few days after the news about Osetinskaya's “sabbatical,” the news website reported that its sources said RBC's owner, Mikhail Prokhorov, was intensifying talks to sell off the news organization. RBC denied the rumor officially, and Vladimir Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said the Kremlin wasn't putting any pressure on RBC

A few days after this news, however, Interior Ministry police revealed that they are investigating RBC's general director, Nikolai Molibog, in connection with a complaint filed by Alexander Panov, a former shareholder in Byte-Telecom. Panov accuses RBC of illegally seizing $13.4 million in Byte-Telecom shares that he says belonged to him and his partners. Molibog, in turn, said RBC has sued Panov once before for defamation (and it won), and warned that the news company is now entertaining more lawsuits, this time against Panov and Rambler News Service “in connection with the publication of unverified and false information that harms the professional reputation of the company and its staff.”

The newspaper Kommersant reported that RBC is being investigated in connection with another two cases, but police have denied this claim.

Technically speaking, only Maxim Solyus was actually fired from RBC today. The news organization's official press release says merely that Osetinskaya, Solyus, and Badanin “are leaving” the company, without any further explanation. But sources at Mediazona and Vedomosti claim only Osetinskaya and Badanin are leaving on mutually agreed terms. It's still unclear where Solyus and Badanin will go next.

Judging by early reports on social media, it's likely that a significant part of RBC's editorial staff will resign from the news company, as a result of the three top editors being forced out. But it remains unclear how many people will actually leave. Several employees have already stated publicly that they'll stay on until the end of June, while others have refused to comment. 

The dismantling of Osetinskaya's team at RBC coincides with long-term and more recent trends in the Russian news media. In connection with a new federal law limiting foreign capital in Russian media outlets, both Forbes and Vedomosti got new owners in late 2015. Forbes also got a new chief editor and (according to unofficial reports) now has to deal with direct interventions into its editorial policy by the new owner, Alexander Fedotov. Vedomosti has apparently avoided such troubles, but it did shed as shareholders the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times, which struck a blow to the reputation of the entire Russian news media.

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