Russian media resignations follow increased pressure

MOSCOW – Once a rather stolid operation focused on business news, the RBC group in recent years had become a standout among Russia’s constricting field of independent news media. Then came stories that the Kremlin and President Vladimir Putin may have found far too revealing.

Amid a flurry of probes and police raids that targeted RBC and its billionaire owner Mikhail Prokhorov, who also owns the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets, three key editors resigned Friday. RBC said in a vague statement that the three had stepped down because they failed to agree with management “on a number of crucial issues.”

But that could indicate that management wanted to rein in the reporting, which has included accounts of corruption, the lucrative activities of a woman believed to be Putin’s daughter and a profile of a wealthy cello-player and Putin associate later identified in the Panama Papers as a conduit for Russian offshore money.

“Views on the editorial policy have diverged as the company found itself under pressure,” Roman Badanin, one of the editors who stepped down, told The Associated Press.

Media professionals have seen the attack on RBC as almost predictable both because of its bold reporting and its growing reach: its website was ranked as Russia’s most-visited news site last year.

Badanin was chief of RBC’s news service. RBC also publishes a daily newspaper and operates a television station. RBC editor-in-chief Elizaveta Osetinskaya, and newspaper editor Maxim Solyus also stepped down.

An RBC editor who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak publicly about internal matters told the AP that the resignations were triggered by the publication of an investigation on Wednesday about an oyster farm near a mansion that a Russian whistleblower has described as “Putin’s palace.”

Russia has become an increasingly difficult place for independent journalists since Putin came to power in 2000. The respected NTV station was wrestled from its tycoon owner and sold to a state-owned company; other outlets that once challenged the Kremlin were sold to people closer to the power centre. Some independent media continued to report on corruption and other issues ignored by state-controlled media — but there was a tacit understanding that Putin’s family was off-limits.

RBC broke that taboo when it published a lengthy story last year about a woman named Katerina Tikhonova and her role at a helm of a fast growing hi-tech fund under the umbrella of the Moscow State University. RBC did not identify her outright as one of Putin’s daughters, but a prominent independent journalist and two international media outlets quoted named and unnamed sources confirming that.

Neither Putin nor his spokesman have confirmed or denied that claim.

In December, RBC published an investigation into the wealth of 33-year old Kirill Shamalov, said to be Tikhonova’s husband, and in March profiled cellist Sergei Roldugin, the godfather of one of Putin’s daughters, who was soon to come to prominence in the Panama Papers as the alleged holder of some $2 billion in offshore assets.

An executive close to Prokhorov described the cellist story as “the last drop to the bucket which was quite full.”

“RBC became a victim of its own success – it became too big in terms of its wide reach and influence,” said the executive, who asked for his name to be withdrawn because he wasn’t authorized to publicly discuss the sensitive matter.

In April, two weeks after the RBC profile of Roldugin, masked officers of the Federal Security Service raided the offices of Onexim, Prokhorov’s investment vehicle; it appeared to be a clear message for him to tighten the leash on his journalists.

A few weeks later, the country’s top investigators opened a fraud probe against RBC.

“RBC has been bold and charging forward to cover the subjects that their colleagues for some reason have thought to be too dangerous and a taboo to pursue,” said Mikhail Zygar, a Russian journalist and author of the bestselling book All the Kremlin’s Men, referring to the investigations about Tikhonova and Shamalov.

Zygar, who interviewed numerous Kremlin insiders for his book about Putin’s rise to power, says Kremlin press handlers never gave anyone exact guidelines on what was off-limits, but journalists must have taken Kremlin reaction to some publications as a sign.

“Editors at top media outlets came to a consensus a long time ago, in the 2000s, that two topics were off limits: Putin’s family and Chechnya. It was a classic example of self-censorship.”

An editor at RBC who asked to be unnamed because he was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and a prominent former media executive with close ties to RBC said the three investigations enraged the Kremlin so much that Kremlin officials openly told Prokhorov to gag the reporters or sell out. Both people said the editors were kept regularly informed of the Kremlin’s complaints to Prokhorov by Derk Sauer, a Dutch-born long-time Russian media executive who left RBC last year to work at Onexim.

The editor said Sauer had suggested Osetinskaya, the editor-in-chief, take a sabbatical. Osetinskaya was named in April an International John S. Knight Journalism Fellow for 2016-2017.

Sauer, the media executive who gained prominence by founding the English-language Moscow Times more than two decades ago, is among the suspects in the fraud probe launched Wednesday against RBC. When contacted by the AP about the allegations, Sauer said he had not been officially notified of the fraud case and dismissed the accusations as false.

“We did not engage in any fraudulent activities,” Sauer said.

With parliamentary elections coming in September and presidential election less than two years away, the Kremlin is likely eager to tighten its control on news media.

“Can media including RBC influence how the elections are going? No, it can’t,” says Zygar, whose book deals with the intricacies of power-play in Russia. “But I have a feeling that when an official tells the president: we have an election coming up and we don’t need trouble ahead of it, this is an extra argument a clever official can use” to get the green light for the crackdown.

Presidential administration officials at Kremlin briefings with editors of major Russian media outlets used to be “jocular” with RBC about its reporting, the RBC editor told the AP. The Roldugin story was a game changer, and RBC was now openly accused of “getting engaged in sabotage” by publishing that story, the editor said.

Asked about government pressure on RBC and other assets of Prokhorov’s, Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov has denied any Kremlin involvement.

“I would not in any way link this with the pressure on RBC — there has been no pressure to begin with,” Peskov told reporters on Thursday.