quarta-feira, 18 de maio de 2016

Editors at Russia’s RBC media group sacked after Putin article

Editors at Russia’s RBC media group sacked after Putin article
Kremlin denies involvement as tensions burst into the open at last remaining independent news group

18-5-2016 by: Max Seddon in Moscow

At an awards ceremony late last year, Mikhail Prokhorov, the Russian oligarch, joked that the hard-hitting investigations by his RBC media group into President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle were causing him more trouble than they were worth.

“I read RBC every morning and think, ‘Who am I going to get angry phone calls from today?’” he joked, according to several who were in attendance.

On Friday tensions at the heart of Russia’s last remaining independent news organisation burst into the open with the sacking of RBC’s three top editors under what employees say was pressure from the Kremlin.

Their dismissal, which prompted more than a dozen journalists to quit in protest, is the latest incident in a long erosion of media freedom under Mr Putin as he tightens the screw on dissent.

The trigger for the departure of the highly respected Elizaveta Osetinskaya, editor-in-chief of RBC group, Maxim Solyus, editor of its newspaper, and Roman Badanin, web editor, was an article — still available online — about plans for an oyster and mussel farm next to a billion-dollar Black Sea estate popularly known as “Putin’s Palace”.

Before that months of investigations into how Mr Putin’s family and friends accumulated their vast fortunes — including his daughter — had led even RBC reporters to question how long it would be before it became the latest Russian media outlet to be brought to heel.

Nikolai Molibog, RBC chief executive, says he and the sacked editors “failed to reach a shared opinion on a number of important issues” but declined to comment further. Dmitry Peskov, Mr Putin’s spokesman, says the idea that the Kremlin put pressure on Onexim, Mr Prokhorov’s holding company, to fire the trio is “absurd”.

But storm clouds had been gathering since last month when RBC became the only significant Russian outlet to cover the Panama papers — including Mr Putin’s ties to Sergei Roldugin, a classical musician who was revealed to have funnelled $2bn through a web of offshore accounts.

Russian special forces raided Onexim’s offices not long after the story ran. Police later opened a criminal probe against unnamed members of RBC’s management.

“The publication became a red rag because of the offshore [Panama papers] coverage,” Ms Osetinskaya says in her first interview since her sacking.

RBC reporters say the Kremlin took particular offence at Mr Solyus’s decision to accompany the story with a picture of Mr Putin — even though the president was not named in the leaked documents.

St Petersburg International Economic Forum 2013 Day Two...Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov speaks with the media before a conference session on day two of the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum 2013 (SPIEF) in St. Petersburg, Russia, on Friday, June 21, 2013. President Vladimir Putin is battling investor skepticism to woo foreign executives descending on his hometown today as Russia's economy faces a risk of recession and a crackdown on critics scares off intellectuals. Photographer: Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg
Under Mikhail Prokhorov, RBC was transformed from a clickbait factory to a respected independent news organisation © Bloomberg
“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.”

Through most of its history, RBC’s disparate, if well-read, outlets were best known for copying news from other publications, “exclusives” that had to be retracted and for taking money from advertisers to publish articles.

Embarrassed by the organisation’s poor reputation, the liberal-minded Mr Prokhorov, who also owns the Brooklyn Nets basketball team, brought in Mr Sauer to overhaul it.

If you look at the major investigations we did, they are all based on the same principle: follow the money

Mr Sauer, who co-founded Vedomosti, the FT’s former Russian sister paper, hired Ms Osetinskaya, previously Vedomosti editor-in-chief, with a mandate to build a modern digital newsroom. They hired investigative reporters whose stories were unlikely to be published elsewhere.

The improved journalism raised RBC’s profile, while the website’s past as a clickbait factory meant it could reach a much larger audience than rivals. But their output ruffled feathers.

One investigation centred on Mr Putin’s youngest daughter, Ekaterina, who runs a Silicon Valley-style project at Russia’s top university. Another focused on her husband, the beneficiary of a sweetheart $1.75bn state loan to buy a stake in a petrochemicals producer.

Mr Sauer became the target of public ire, and nationalist lawmakers and demonstrators held signs outside RBC’s office calling him an “enemy of the people” — prompting his move to an executive role.

“If you look at the major investigations we did, they are all based on the same principle: follow the money,” says Ms Osetinskaya, who will take up a fellowship at Stanford University.

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Readers’ appetite for their stories, she says, convinced her she was doing the right thing — even when one official was quoted in Vedomosti talking of a “war” with RBC.

When the Panama revelations broke “I told my reporters to dig stuff up on” Mr Roldugin, she says. “And the traffic just kept going up.”

RBC appears outwardly unchanged since the events of Friday, though many reporters tell the FT they plan to quit.

The motives of Mr Prokhorov, whose spokesman did not return a request for comment, remain unclear. Some in Moscow say he sacrificed the editors to avoid being forced to sell RBC to a more Kremlin-friendly oligarch.

Others say the man who ran for president against Mr Putin in 2012 may be at risk. “They don’t trust Prokhorov any more,” says a senior figure at RBC.

“The whole process [of intimidation] is as indirect as possible,” the insider adds, mimicking the classic mafia threat: “Nobody ever comes and says, ‘Oh, what a nice publication you have, it would be a shame if anything happened to it’.”

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