12 newsrooms in 5 years How the Russian authorities decimated a news industry
Photo: Anton Karliner / Meduza
On May 13, 2016, the biggest independent news company in Russia fired its top three editors. According to multiple inside sources, the dismissals were the result of pressure from the Kremlin, following the authorities' anger about several recent investigative reports. In particular, the Kremlin is said to have been enraged by reports about Vladimir Putin's family and about offshore account records revealed in the “Panama Papers.” Many of the editors and reporters at RBC say they plan to resign, following the exit of the company's top three editors, while others have vowed to continue their work “until the first story is censored.” Meduza looks back at what has become a sad trend in Russia: overt political pressure on the news media. Since 2011, when the last presidential campaign season got underway, there have been at least a dozen prominent instances. Here they are.
May 2016. RBC
What happened. As a result of pressure from the Kremlin (which Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, firmly denies), the news company lost its three top editors: Elizaveta Osetinskaya, Roman Badanin, and Maxim Soluys. Several department heads and other reporters have promised to resign in protest, saying June 30 will be their last day of work at RBC.
The outcome. It's too soon to say. It remains unclear who will head RBC next. The same can be said about how much of the old newsroom will stay on. It's also unclear what kind of relationship the next chief editor will build with the Kremlin and RBC's owner, Mikhail Prokhorov. Leaving his post, Maxim Soluys pointed out that police recently brought fraud charges against Nikolai Molibog, RBC's general director, and Derk Sauer, the vice president of the private investment bank Onexim, making it unlikely that the companies' owner, Prokhorov, will escape this conflict unscathed.
January 2016. Forbes
What happened. Because of a new law restricting foreign ownership in Russian media companies, the German group Axel Springer was forced to sell off its shares in Forbes and other assets in Russia. Negotiations with potential buyers lasted several months, concluding in late 2015. Initially, it was assumed that 20 percent of the company would remain with general director Regina von Flemming, preserving a certain level of continuity with the previous owner. The deal fell through, however, and the businessman Alexander Fedotov ended up buying 100 percent of Forbes. According to Meduza's sources, Fedotov immediately started meddling in editorial policy, demanding the removal of various news stories. Chief editor Elmar Murtazaev refused to do this, and in no time he left Forbes “for personal reasons” in mid-January 2016.
The outcome. After Murtazaev, Forbes hired as its next chief editor Nikolai Uskov, a journalist with no experience in business reporting. Uskov quickly announced that his Forbes wouldn't be about politics, though he vowed to remain a thorn in the side of the powerful. What will become of Forbes should be clearer in the coming months, as the first of the long-form reports completed under his leadership start rolling out.
August 2015. Russian Media Group
What happened. In the summer of 2015, Vladimir Kiselyov, the founder of the “Federation” foundation, suggested to Vladimir Putin the creation of a “patriotic media holding company.” Kiselyov proposed merging “several television stations” and “Russian Media Group” assets (Russkoe Radio, Hit FM, Radio Maxim, DFM, Monte Carlo, and the music station Ru.tv.) RMG, owned by Leonid Fedun's holding company “IFD Capital,” would be sold to “Gosconcert” (a part of the Russian Ministry of Culture) at a price below its market value. RMG's management, along with its musicians and producers, opposed the sale. The consortium tried to buy out the managers, producers, and artists, but it failed. In August, the holding company appointed a new executive director, be he quit after a week, complaining about interference from the Ministry of Communications in the company's editorial policies.
The outcome. In the fall of 2015, much of the staff at RMG, including most of the employees at Russkoe Radio, resigned. Some of these people came together in November 2015 and launched a new project called Novoe Radio. By 2016, the sale of RMG to “Gosconcert” was still being negotiated. In April, the newspaper Vedomosti reported that Vladimir Kiselyov's holdings had received a 3-billion-ruble ($46-million) loan to purchase RMG.
February 2015. TV2
What happened. In late 2014, the Tomsk-based TV station TV2—one of the oldest independent television networks in Russia—was in danger of being shut down. In December 2014, the Tomsk Regional Broadcasting Center unilaterally terminated its VHF broadcasting contract with TV2. Early the next year, the station ceased its Internet and cable broadcasting, as well. Tomsk even hosted a mass rally in support of the TV station. Viewers say the channel was shut down because of its independent editorial policy.
The outcome. On February 4, 2015, TV2 launched a fundraising effort to keep the channel alive on the Internet. That same day, the media-support foundation “Sreda” announced that it was giving TV2 a 7.5-million-ruble ($115,000) grant. Today, the TV2 News Agency exists as an Internet project, including limited video content.
December 2014. Russkaya Planeta
What happened. One fine day, the investors at Russkaya Planeta suddenly announced that chief editor Pavel Pryanikov was out, and a new leadership would be moving in. Editors were informed that their staff was made up of “weak cosmists” not up to the journal's tasks, and so the journal would be redesigned, based on the views of its owners. Along with Pryanikov, who managed to transform Russkaya Planeta (financed by the construction company “Morton”) into one of Russia's most original publications, several other editors left, saying the change in leadership was part of an effort to overhaul the journal's editorial policy.
The outcome. Lots of reporters left Russkaya Planeta, which underwent a redesign and became a patriotic media outlet, publishing articles about Russian weapons, op-eds by nationalist Eduard Limonov, and rabid criticisms of the Russian opposition. After leaving the journal, Pryanikov and several of his former colleagues moved to Lenta.ru, where Galina Timchenko (Meduza's current general director) was previously fired in a similar manner. In the end, Pryanikov ended up as chief editor of the website Takie Dela.
August 2014. REN TV
What happened. On August 1, 2014, the network shut down the show “The Week with Marianna Maksimovskaya,” one of the last remaining analytical programs on Russian television. (According to TNS research data, it was also one of the most popular shows on REN TV.) The station never offered a reason for canceling the program.
The outcome. After shutting down her show, Marianna Maksimovskaya briefly remained at REN TV as a deputy editor, eventually resigning in December 2014, when her contract formally expired. Since 2015, she's served as a vice president at the “Mikhailov and Partners” company. REN TV replaced her show with a new program called “Drobrov on Air,” hosted by Andrei Dobrov, who claims to present the news “from a normal person's perspective.”
March 2014. Grani.ru
What happened. On March 13, 2014, Russia's Attorney General ordered federal censors to block the opposition website Grani.ru, accusing it of publishing incitements to illegal actions, including unsanctioned political rallies. Grani.ru was the first online news publication blocked in Russia, but it soon had as company the opposition websites Kasparov.ru and Ezhedvevnyi Zhurnal (blocked for the same reasons).
The outcome. Grani.ru, whose financial situation even before being blocked was already in a dire state, continues to operate, using an array of mirror sites. The site itself features instructions for circumventing Internet censorship. Grani.ru still publishes reports about current events and articles about the burning issues of the day. The website is now exclusively political, and all its content is thoroughly oppositionist.
March 2014. Lenta.ru
What happened. On March 14, 2014, not long before Crimea's reabsorption into Russia, the managing shareholder of the company “Afisha-Rambler-Sup,” Alexander Mamut, fired the chief editor of Lenta.ru, Galina Timchenko (Meduza's current general director). The pretext for dismissing Lenta.ru's head was an official warning from Russian state censors, issued because one of the news website's stories (an interview with a Ukrainian nationalist leader) contained a hyperlink to materials deemed extremist. More than 80 editors and reporters—nearly the entire newsroom—quit Lenta.ru in protest, publishing an open letter where they called Timchenko's outster an act of censorship and a violation of Russia's media laws. Lenta.ru's next chief editor was Alexey Goreslavsky, the former chief editor of the pro-Kremlin website Vzglyad. While at Rambler, Goreslavsky managed the company's relationships with various government offices.
The outcome. You're reading part of the outcome right now. Staff who resigned from Lenta.ru went on to found the media outlets N+1 and Meduza, as well as a social-media-marketing firm called “Fuzzy Cheese.” Former Lenta.ru reporters and editors also found work at Forbes, RBC, Vedomosti, Arzamas, and other projects. In early 2016, Alexey Goreslavsky was made executive director of the media group “Rambler & Co.” Taking over as chief editor was Goreslavsky's deputy editor, Alexander Belonovsky, who came to Lenta.ru from RBC, after a reorganization of that company's existing newsroom.
January 2014. Dozhd TV
What happened. Dozhd published an online survey asking viewers if Leningrad should have been surrendered to the Nazis, “in order to save hundreds of thousands of lives.” Afterwards, Russia's biggest cable television providers started, one after another, dropping Dozhd from their coverage, saying it was in response to angry calls from customers upset about the Leningrad poll. Dozhd's chief editor, Natalia Sindeeva, accused the cable providers of bowing to pressure from above, saying these companies admitted as much to her in private conversations. According to Sindeeva, Dozhd was being punished for reporting on high-ranking officials' luxurious country homes, not the Leningrad poll.
The outcome. The TV station was forced to change its business model, shifting its focus to broadcasting online to paid subscribers. In the spring of 2014, the channel announced pay cuts. That same year, Russian lawmakers passed legislation banning advertisements on premium cable television channels, further complicating Dozhd's work. Before the end of the year, the station was evicted from its studio in downtown Moscow. Dozhd has continued to broadcast, however, even operating temporarily out of a private apartment for several months. Since 2015, it has a new studio at the “Flakon” factory in Moscow.
December 2013. RIA Novosti
What happened. On December 9, 2013, Vladimir Putin unexpectedly issued an executive order liquidating Russia's largest news agency. With Putin's decree, the state, which owns RIA Novosti, set about building an entirely new news organization in its place. This is how Sergei Ivanov, Putin's chief of staff, described the new project: “To explain to the world that Russia pursues an independent policy and is firmly committed to defending its national interests.” The new outfit got the name Rossiya Segodnya (the Russian translation of “Russia Today”), and Dmitry Kisleyov, the country's best known TV propagandist, was appointed to be the general director. And the head of Russia Today, Margarita Simonyan, became the chief editor.
The outcome. In the remaking of RIA Novosti—once the most innovative and independent of Russia's state media—most of the correspondents left, many of the agency's news projects shut down, and layoffs swept the newsroom. Some of RIA Novosti's products (like the legal news desk RAPSI and the foreign-news translation portal InoSMI) were preserved as separate projects. The URL Ria.ru still works, but the website is just an appendage of Rossiya Segodnya. In early 2016, RIA Novosti's former and final chief editor, Svetlana Mironyuk, took a position managing Sberbank's marketing and communications department.
September 2013. Gazeta.ru
What happened. Ahead of parliamentary elections in 2011, Roman Badanin resigned from his post as deputy editor of Gazeta.ru. He quit after the website's managers decided to remove a banner created jointly with the human rights organization “Golos,” featuring a project that allowed the public to crowdsource reports of election violations during the campaign. Mikhail Kotov, Gazeta.ru's chief editor, said removing the banner was a purely commercial decision, explaining that the site needed to free up the space for advertising. Demyan Kudryatsev, the head of the Kommersant publishing house (which at the time belonged to the same holding company as Kommersant), said the conflict was due to Badanin's refusal to run an advertisement for the political party United Russia.
The outcome. After the elections, the SUP Media holding company, which owned Gazeta.ru, was transferred entirely to the businessman Alexander Mamut. In March 2013, Kotov left his position as chief editor, and Svetlana Lolaeva, who'd been with the news website since 2007, took his place. Within a few months, Gazeta.ru's owners decided to replace her with Svetlana Babaeva, a former staff member at Izvestia and RIA Novosti. By September 2013, with Babaeva at the helm, Gazeta.ru had completely restaffed its politics desk, and many other reporters who'd covered the 2011 and 2012 elections had resigned.
December 2011. Kommersant
What happened. On December 16, 2011, the Kommersant publishing house fired Maxim Kovalsky, the longtime chief editor of the daily Kommersant-Vlast. The reason for Kovalsky's dismissal was his decision to publish a photograph of a voting ballot featuring an obscene word scribbled next to Vladimir Putin's name. Both Kommersant's owner, the billionaire Alisher Usmanov, and Demyan Kudryatsev, the head of the Kommersant publishing house, criticized the published photo. Staff members at Kommersant wrote an open letter supporting Kovalsky, calling his ouster an “act of intimidation.”
The outcome. Maxim Kovalsky's dismissal wouldn't be the last time Kommersant found itself in hot water. Twice again, in 2012 and 2013, Kommersant FM lost its chief editors, at Usmanov's insistence (and under pressure from the Kremlin, according to unofficial reports). In 2012, Kudryatsev left the Kommersant publishing house, where turnover among top managers remains high to this day. In 2014, the publishing house hired as its chief Maria Komarova, who's known informally as a protégé of Putin's first deputy administration head, Vyacheslav Volodin. In 2016, the job went to Vladimir Zhelonkin, the former head of the media group Zvezda. Kommersant nevertheless remains one of Russia's largest media holdings, though its executive managers increasingly face accusations that they meddle in the newspaper's stories, editing articles and deleting content about the political opposition. The newspaper is also frequently suspected of planting stories and silencing news that might upset the authorities.