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A crisis at ‘Kommersant’ What newspaper staff were told vs. what managers claim publicly

Source: Meduza
Dmitry Dukhanin / Kommersant

On May 20, the public learned that Kommersant has forced out two journalists, special correspondent Ivan Safronov and editor Maxim Ivanov, at the insistence of the newspaper’s owner, Alisher Usmanov. The dismissals were reportedly the result of an article published on April 18 about Federation Council Speaker Valentina Matviyenko potentially stepping down to lead Russia’s Pension Fund, clearing the way for current Foreign Intelligence Service Director Sergey Naryshkin. After Safronov and Ivanov were dismissed, Kommersant’s entire politics desk resigned in protest, plunging the outlet into a crisis. The newspaper’s editor-in-chief and the chairman of the board then accused Safronov and Ivanov of violating editorial standards, prompting a statement from the remaining staff that Kommersant’s shareholders “are right now destroying one of the best media outlets in Russia.” Meduza has learned more about how the situation with the Matviyenko story developed inside Kommersant’s newsroom, uncovering information that undermines claims from management that reporters broke any editorial standards.

How Kommersant’s management explains why Safronov and Ivanov were fired

The newspaper’s management didn’t explain the decision to Kommersant’s own staff. When editor-in-chief and CEO Vladimir Zhelonkin first commented on the firings, it was in a statement to Vedomosti. He refused to address possible meddling by Kommersant’s owners (though he later said he fired Safronov and Ivanov on his own), and stated that the two journalists were asked to leave because an article from April (where sources claimed that Valentina Matviyenko might be stepping down) violated Kommersant’s editorial standards. (The article in question had five authors: Safronov and Ivanov, as well as Natalia Korchenkova, Anastasia Manuilova, and Oleg Sapozhkov.)

Zhelonkin told Meduza that he saw the article before it was published, but he says he received information only later that it violated editorial standards. In interviews with Meduza, Vedomosti, and BBC Russian Service, Zhelonkin declined to clarify what he meant by “violations of editorial standards.” “Zhelonkin keeps referring to certain standards at Kommersant, but we don’t have anything like Vedomosti’s ‘dogma,’” a Kommersant journalist told Meduza (which another two staffers confirmed).

Ivan Streshinsky, Kommersant’s board chairman and publishing house owner Alisher Usmanov’s representative, later told the website The Bell that the firing of Safronov and Ivanov wasn’t connected to the content of the April 18 article about Matviyenko. Streshinsky says neither Matviyenko nor Naryshkin reached out to the newspaper, but he says he “received a signal” indicating that the article might have been “planted.” Streshinsky has not identified who sent him this “signal.”

After learning that the Matviyenko story might have been planted, Streshinsky says he asked Zhelonkin to investigate the matter. “It’s unacceptable for Kommersant to be used like a waste tank for political infighting. This was about the journalists proving to him the good faith of their work and that they observed all journalistic standards,” Streshinsky argued.

Zhelonkin demanded that Safronov and Ivanov reveal their sources for the Matviyenko story, but they refused — even though the editor-in-chief would not have shared the sources’ identity with the board chairman, Streshinsky claims. Kommersant’s journalists themselves, meanwhile, deny that the article was a planted story. Deputy chief editor Gleb Cherkasov says he worked directly on the text and is “100 percent confident” in the reporting.

Nevertheless, Streshinsky insists that the journalists’ refusal to name their sources violates Kommersant’s internal rules and constitutes “insubordination.” He says he’s still ready to hire back Safronov and Ivanov, if Zhelonkin can confirm that the article wasn’t a planted story. He says he gave the newsroom three days to produce this evidence. “Within this time frame, no confirmation of good faith was provided, which is clear proof that the article was either planted or the journalists preferred a scandal. But we won’t submit to blackmail,” Streshinsky told The Bell.

After Safronov and Ivanov said they wouldn’t reveal their sources, Zhelonkin negotiated their resignations, though Streshinsky now says he plans to ensure that both journalists are formally fired.

Later in the day, Vladimir Zhelonkin commented on the resignations of Kommersant’s entire politics desk, saying that the journalists left “on the basis of false solidarity and with the aim of exerting pressure on the publishing house’s leadership.”

Little is known officially about Alisher Usmanov’s position on Kommersant’s editorial crisis. Spokespeople for the billionaire told Meduza that he learned about the situation from media reports. “The shareholder doesn’t interfere in editorial policy, and moreover does not make decisions on the dismissal or hiring of journalists,” Usmanov’s press service said.

What Safronov told his colleagues about getting canned

Sources inside Kommersant told Meduza that the newsroom held an informal going-away party late on May 20. The get together included almost everyone on staff, even some managers, but not editor-in-chief Vladimir Zhelonkin. People asked Ivan Safronov to explain what happened, and he noted that “this story has dragged on for more than a month now.” “In many ways,” he said, “the May holidays helped us stay here for a bit longer, while Mr. Alisher Usmanov was off sailing his yacht to Sardinia, but then he came back.”

Meduza has obtained an audio recording from the farewell party at Kommersant. On the tape, Safronov asks his colleagues not to share his remarks with the outside world. With this request in mind, Meduza is only reporting excerpts that we deem to be in the public interest.

Safronov says he “only partly” understands the position of Kommersant’s owner, but he realized that Usmanov views the publishing house as “just another asset among hundreds of assets that he’s free to command as he wishes.” “There were no illusions about non-interference in editorial policy and so on. If Alisher Usmanov wants to fire a low-level employee at Metalloinvest, that employee is screwed. If he wants to fire a top executive at Megafon, that Megafon top exec is screwed. He’s the owner and it’s his decision. From this perspective, there was nothing to argue about,” Safronov explained.

The journalist told his colleagues that the newspaper’s management had no issues with the article about Matviyenko, either when it was published or the following day. “The entire management team took part in publishing the story, and the authors even received a bonus payment for it,” Safronov said. “The complaints started a week later, when I was supposed to leave for a trip with Putin to Irkutsk or something — wherever there were fires. They called me back to the office as I was on the way to the airport. They told me there were some problems, and we needed to talk.”

Valentina Matviyenko apparently wasn’t happy about the story. “As I understand it, she personally expressed these complaints to our shareholder,” Safronov said. “Then there was a whole chain of events about which [deputy chief editor] Renata [Yambaeva] has already written: Usmanov — Streshinsky — Zhelonkin.” (Other sources familiar with the situation also confirmed to Meduza that Matviyenko was upset about the article.) Afterwards, there were protracted negotiations about who would be punished: all five authors, or just some of them. “[Editorial board members] tried to save everyone, but [Usmanov’s representatives] didn’t agree to this,” Safronov explained.

Another source confirmed to Meduza that Usmanov originally wanted to fire editor-in-chief and Kommersant CEO Vladimir Zhelonkin, but he managed to reach a compromise. In the end, the shareholders agreed to fire just some of the article’s authors. “[We] tried for a long time to convince the shareholders not to do this, but we failed,” said one of the Kommersant journalists who resigned in protest, after Safronov and Ivanov were fired.

“We were given one condition: ‘Disclose your sources of information, their full names, and all your passwords, and we’ll drop the complaints.’ I think Mrs. Matviyenko herself wanted to know. It’s my understanding that our story disrupted her appointment to the Pension Fund. The first headline for this article, by the way, was ‘Valentina Matviyenko Is Pushed Into Retirement,’” Safronov said, adding that he consulted Maxim Ivanov about revealing his sources. “I said some of the people who confirmed this information to me are high-placed officials in law-enforcement agencies. And if Matviyenko picks up the phone and calls their head minister, he’ll tear them a new asshole, and then what’s left of them will come for me. This is a matter of my personal safety and the safety of my family. I can’t reveal my source and risk it.”

A day after Kommersant’s ultimatum, the article’s authors talked to their sources, who claimed that “Valentina Matviyenko was really starting to worry,” Safronov told his colleagues. “We refused to disclose our sources’ names on Wednesday. On Thursday, we negotiated our resignations: three months’ pay as severance. They gave us two options: agree to the CEO’s terms, or be fired for violating the Labor Code. For example, every day we’re supposed to be at work from 10 a.m. until 6 p.m. We enter the building using magnetic cards, and one fine day when I’m at a meeting instead of at the office, I could be fired in a heartbeat for breaking the Labor Code,” Safronov explained.

In the audio recording, a Kommersant staff member then says reporters in the newsroom remained silent about the editorial pressure, believing they could contain the damage: “There was hope to settle this and reach an agreement, but everything that’s happened today shows that the reputation costs for those who stay will grow by the hour.”

“Max [Ivanov] and I have sat down a few times since all this garbage began, and we’ve asked ourselves if we’d take anything back, if we knew the consequences in advance. I’d still write this story, because it’s the kind of reporting that can and should appear in Kommersant. If I had to write it again, I’d probably write it again,” Safronov told his colleagues.

At the end of the gathering, Kommersant staff agreed to release a joint statement.

What does the statement by Kommersant’s staff say?

Around 8:45 p.m. on May 20, Kommersant staff started publishing a statement on their social-media accounts, revealing that the newsroom was told Safronov and Ivanov were fired on orders from the newspaper’s shareholders, even though Usmanov’s spokespeople claim he never intervened in Kommersant’s editorial policy.

“The article [about Matviyenko] complied fully with standards at Kommersant, which always draws from reliable and vetted sources,” the statement reads. “In fact, immediately after the story was published, its authors were awarded bonuses for their reporting.”

The statement also notes that both Russian media laws and Kommersant’s labor contract prohibit forcing journalists to disclose their sources without a court order.

Kommersant’s staff feels an obligation to notify our readers that Kommersant will, for an indefinite period, be unable to inform them about Russian politics,” the statement says. “A forced interruption of this nature has never before occurred in the 30-year history of this publication. We offer readers our apologies.”

The statement concludes with an appeal to readers, asking them to “explain to the shareholders” that their decision to fire staff at the newspaper is destroying one of the best media outlets in Russia. Several dozen reporters at Kommersant have signed the text.

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