The Death of Free Media in Russia
Under pressure, the last oligarch supporting opposition voices bends to Putin’s will.
An earthquake has shaken Russia’s battered media landscape. In one day, on Friday, May 13, Russia’s biggest independent media holding company, RBC (Russian Business Consulting), lost three top editors—Yelizaveta Osetinskaya, editor in chief of the overall media group; Maksim Solyus, editor of the RBC newspaper; and Roman Badanin, editor of its news agency—in what was seen as a sacrifice made to the Kremlin by the company’s owner, billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov.
And then the entire media company began to collapse like a house of cards as many journalists decided to quit in solidarity with their editors.
Last month, Russian law enforcement officers conducted searches at Prokhorov’s offices. (He is supposed to be one of the five richest men in Russia, and also, as it happens, owns the Brooklyn Nets basketball team.)
Prokhorov was the last of the oligarchs supporting the opposition and the authorities wanted push him away from the media market. Under mounting pressure, it appears he decided to compromise, and the journalistic bloodletting began.
“Prokhorov is sacrificing his media assets for the sake of saving his—more important—business interests,“ political analyst Maria Lipman at George Washington University told The Daily Beast. “This is—by far!—not the first time such a choice has been made by a Russian entrepreneur under pressure.”
Once flamboyant and famous for his unbridled interest in beautiful women, the 51-year-old Prokhorov’s ambitions have hit some rough spots lately.
During presidential elections in 2012, as the only independent candidate running against Vladimir Putin, he got only 8 percent of the vote.
Last year Prokhorov lost his good friend, opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, murdered just outside the Kremlin’s wall.
“He was shot in the back. The bastards didn’t have the courage to look into his eyes,” Prokhorov said at the time.
This year Prokhorov found himself targeted by the FSB (security service) raids on his Moscow offices.
Although the Kremlin’s officials denied they were involved, many in Moscow believe President Putin is punishing Prokhorov and his RBC for investigating Putin’s family corruption.
The head of Russia’s journalist union, Pavel Gusev, calls the RBC case purely political and said it reminded him of the Kremlin’s attack on the NTV network back in May 2000. Then, in Vladimir Putin’s first year as president, dozens of tax police, as well as officers from the general prosecutor’s office and the FSB, stormed the Moscow headquarters of NTV. At the time Putin denied any involvement in such an attack on journalists.
Solid investigative reports conducted by THE RBC media company in the past two years unveiled some major mysteries of the Kremlin’s life. RBC’s talented team analyzed and published the anatomy of Russia’s expenses in all OF Putin’s major projects. Last June RBC ran a detailed analysis of the money Russian and Ukrainian investors spent in Donbas, the rebel-controlled territories in eastern Ukraine.
In October the newspaper also shed light on the Russian Defense ministry’s $2.5 million daily investments in the war in Syria. An article published in March explained what sort of money People’s Front, the movement founded personally by Putin, spent on its executives and ordinary members.
Russian journalists compared RBC to Noah’s Ark as they fled the rising tide of censorship. They saw it as the only open-minded media group in Russia covering all key content platforms including the Internet, TV, and printed publications.
The media holding employed up to 1,500 journalists and media workers. But after the Panama papers scandal broke, exposing Putin’s best friend, the Kremlin became especially sensitive to any criticism of the Russian president and his close circle—and one could hardly get closer than some of the targets of the journalistic inquiries.
“Authorities started making attempts to choke RBC in mid autumn last year but the most crucial irritation was provoked by the RBC investigation into the business affairs of Putin’s [alleged] daughter Yekaterina Tikhonova and [her husband Kirill] Shamalov,“ Boris Grozovskiy, an analyst at Gaidar Fund, told The Daily Beast.
Last December, RBC published an investigative report about the background of the 33-year old Shamalov, who became a co-owner of the Putin-blessed Sibur company, which was worth some $13.4 billion.
According to RBC, the “career obsessed” entrepreneur, married to Tikhonova, became the company’s vice president at age 26.
At the annual press conference with Putin last year, RBC asked the president flatly whether Yekaterina Tikhonova was his daughter. Putin did not deny it, and the president’s neutral answer sounded like “a confession,” as the well-known television anchor Ksenia Sobchak told Sobesednik newspaper.
The whole affair demonstrates the thorough intimidation of the press after 16 years of Putin’s rule as president, prime minister, and president again.
In the beginning of the Putin era, hundreds of Russians protested on the streets against the crackdown on NTV. Last weekend only a couple of dozen journalists gathered in downtown Moscow to demonstrate their support for colleagues at RBC. The protesters read aloud the latest issue of the RBC newspaper. Some had a drink or two at an improvised “funeral” for the once free and independent media holding company.
“Technically, as on many previous occasions, the top manager fired the top editor, others quit peacefully and a few journalists said they’d quit as a sign of protest,“ Lipman told The Daily Beast. She said that RBC media outlets might survive if a new owner cared to keep them. “But of course they will never produce the same kind of journalism, guided by high reporting standards, not by the loyalty to the powers that be—which is exactly the goal behind the reported pressure on Prokhorov.”
Without RBC, the situation looks hopeless to many Russian journalists. The other few remaining independent or semi-independent media groups, including Novaya Gazeta newspaper or The New Time, magazine have no resources to hire dozens of unemployed, high-profile reporters.
The pressure on free media has been coming in waves since Putin’s return to the Kremlin in 2012. In 2014 TV Rain lost its cable and Sputnik channels, together with a big chunk of its audience and advertising revenues. Last year, as a result of a new Russian law limiting ownership by foreign companies, Dow Jones had to sell its stake in the Vedomosti newspaper.
Of course there was always an option to move abroad, as dozens of former Lenta.ru journalists demonstrated in 2014. The new media they founded, called Medusa, are now working from Riga, Latvia.
Indeed, the current situation with RBC sounded familiar to former Lenta journalists. “The RBC company lost its head, this is already some sort of life after death for them now,“ Medusa editor Ivan Kolpakov told The Daily Beast.