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By Masha Lipman,
The New Yorker,
23 May 2016

The Demise of RBC and Investigative Reporting in Russia

Three top editors at RBC, a Russian media organization that includes a business newspaper and the country`s best political Web site, left their jobs last week. Their departures are bound to be followed by major changes to editorial policy at the company, which is owned by the billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, in yet another major blow to press freedom in Russia.

The government started cracking down on small news outlets in 2012 (it had taken over the mass-audience national television channels a decade earlier), but in the past two years the editors of RBC had operated as though they were unaware of the official pressure and pervasive self-censorship. RBC`s Web site emerged as a must-read for those in Russia who were still interested in hearing from independent voices. Most impressively, RBC engaged in investigative reporting-a genre that has become almost nonexistent in the country.

RBC`s rise began in late 2013, when Prokhorov, who also owns the Brooklyn Nets basketball team, bought the company and hired some of Moscow`s best reporters and editors-which wasn`t difficult, as many independent outlets were closing, avoiding sensitive subjects, or switching to nonpolitical coverage. The new RBC team seized the opportunity, and the results look today like a miracle. They produced thorough reports on the finances of the Russian Orthodox Church and on Russian soldiers in Donbas; their reporters investigated how much Russia is paying for its military operation in Syria, made well-founded allegations of corruption in the Ministry of Culture, and got very close to Putin`s inner circle. In late March, they published a piece about a lifelong friend of Putin, the cellist Sergei Roldugin, whom the Panama Papers connected to hundreds of millions of dollars held in an offshore account. Most sensitive of all was a report that came close to identifying one of Putin`s two daughters, whose lives had previously been completely hidden. RBC found that Putin`s younger daughter, Katerina (whose identity was soon confirmed by Reuters), lives under a different last name and works at Moscow State University, where she runs large-scale publicly funded projects. RBC also investigated the business dealings of the man believed to be her husband, whose father is close to Putin.

The Kremlin is increasingly intolerant toward independent players, whether in politics, civic activism, or media, and a media organization like RBC was doomed from the start. Putin`s government has largely refrained from pressuring or persecuting individual journalists. Instead, it has drawn on a range of tools-such as restrictive legislation and pressure on advertisers, cable providers, or owners-to clamp down on those media outlets that have grown too audacious. Last month, government officials searched Prokhorov`s offices, and though Putin`s spokesman said the search was unrelated to RBC or its coverage, in Russia there is no doubt that it was meant as a warning to Prokhorov about the journalists. Prokhorov may not be a member of Putin`s inner circle, but he, like all other rich Russians, prospers at the Kremlin`s discretion, and he can hardly be expected to sacrifice his many business interests for the sake of press freedom. A few weeks later, the three RBC editors left their jobs. In her first interview after her dismissal, with the Financial Times, Elizaveta Osetinskaya, the editor-in-chief of the RBC group, mentioned two recent RBC articles that caused the editors` departure: one about plans for an oyster-and-mussel factory farm next to a billion-dollar Black Sea estate that many refer to as "Putin`s palace," and one on the Panama Papers that was accompanied with a picture of Putin, even though his name did not appear in the leaked documents. After the three editors were dismissed, other senior editors and journalists have said that they, too, will quit at the end of June.

Since very early in Putin`s tenure, media properties have been steadily redistributed so that they are held in loyal hands. Back in 2001, Vladimir Gusinsky, the owner of Media Most, Russia`s largest privately held media company, was forced out of the country. His outlets, including the company`s crown jewel, the national TV channel NTV, were taken over by the gas monopoly Gazprom, the Kremlin`s proxy. Boris Berezovsky, who had controlled another national TV channel, was forced to leave Russia around the same time, and the Kremlin took control of his channel as well. Journalists at both channels were allowed to choose whether to remain at their jobs, now under state control. At the time, I worked as a deputy editor of Itogi, one of Gusinsky`s holdings, a newsweekly published in partnership with Newsweek. Gusinsky`s manager, who was kept on by Gazprom, considered our whole team so uncooperative that he fired all of us, about eighty people, down to the last proofreader.

More recently, the management (and likely also the owner) of Gazeta.ru interfered with the news site`s coverage of campaign fraud in the lead-up to the parliamentary election of December, 2011. A top editor, who also happened to be one of the three dismissed from RBC last week, quit in protest, and some of his Gazeta.ru colleagues followed him. Two years later, Aleksandr Mamut, the owner of the political Web site Lenta.ru, fired the editor, Galina Timchenko. Under Timchenko`s leadership, Lenta.ru had become the most popular political site in Russia. Mamut did not give a reason for firing Timchenko, but it was apparent that her success posed a problem for him. A political outlet is a risky asset; if you are an owner and care about your safety, you probably want to keep it low profile. Nearly all of Timchenko`s team left Lenta.ru after she was fired; some followed her to Riga, in Latvia, where they launched a Russian Web site in exile called Meduza. Its audience remains much smaller than that of Timchenko`s Lenta.ru.

In addition to being the best political outlet in Russia, RBC was also the most widely read independent publication: this spring, it reported twenty million visits per month. Besides, RBC was the only independent outlet that was hiring editors and writers and expanding its operation. Many of those on its current team had previously worked at Lenta.ru, Gazeta.ru, and other publications that were forced to adjust to the increasingly constrained environment. The company will likely continue to stay in business under the same name, but rumors suggest that it will be sold to one of the Kremlin`s trusted media owners. Whoever owns it, the RBC that Russian readers have come to know will almost certainly cease to exist: like many outlets before it, it will be reduced to a tamer, duller version of its old self.

RBC is not the last remaining independent outlet in Russia. There remain other publications whose primary concern is meeting journalistic standards, not fear of displeasing the Kremlin. But each one is deeply vulnerable, and knows this-and the fewer that exist, the more vulnerable they get.

Masha Lipman is editor-in-chief of Counterpoint, a Moscow-based journal published by George Washington University.


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