Independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta is suffering from a raid and audit on its major shareholder. (AP)
Independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta is suffering from a raid and audit on its major shareholder. (AP)

Ahead of elections, Russian media are duly warned

Russia’s leading independent media head into Sunday’s elections–in which Vladimir Putin is expected to be handed his third presidential term–burdened by a series of warnings. Over the past few months, beginning with the parliamentary elections held December 4, Kremlin allies have taken several steps designed to put news outlets on alert for uncensored coverage of nationwide protests, in which a surprising number of Russians have demanded an end to elections fraud and called on Putin to step down from his current post of prime minister.

On December 12, Russian tycoon Alisher Usmanov, owner of the Kommersant Publishing House — which produces independent business daily Kommersant and several other news outlets — announced that he was sacking Maksim Kovalsky, chief editor of the popular weekly magazine Kommersant-Vlast. Demyan Kudryavtsev, the publisher’s executive director, announced he would resign. The news was a huge blow, as Kovalsky and Kudryavtsev are leading journalists and considered fathers of Kommersant and its publisher.

The magazine’s coverage of the parliamentary election was surely the reason for Kommersant’s beheading. A week after the vote, most of Kommersant-Vlast‘s coverage was of the alleged fraud that led to public outrage and protests unprecedented in Russia in the past decade. But Usmanov — believed to be in Putin’s close circle – zeroed in on a formal reason to punish the magazine. In its December 12 issue, Kommersant-Vlast published a picture of a ballot cast in London for the opposition Yabloko party; the ballot carried a hand-written insult to Putin across it. Usmanov publicly scolded the magazine for “unacceptable use of coarse language,” and said it was unethical and “on the borderline of hooliganism.” The magazine removed the picture from its website, but it was circulated on social networks, including Kommersant reporter Oleg Kashin’s Twitter account.

The removal of Kovalsky and Kudryavtsev angered their colleagues at Kommersant. Two days later, dozens of journalists from Usmanov’s news outlets — including independent news website Gazeta — signed and published online an open letter headlined, “We are forced into cowardice.” Veronika Kucyllo, a long-serving deputy editor at Kommersant-Vlast, announced her resignation in protest of Usmanov’s decision.

Other prominent media outlets have been subject to official intimidation and scrutiny following their reporting on anti-Putin rallies.

On February 14, the state controlled publishing company Gazprom-media, which holds a 66% stake in the independent radio station Ekho Moskvy, demanded a premature shuffling of the broadcaster’s board of directors and removal of two of its prominent members. The long serving independent directors Yevgeny Yasin and Aleksandr Makovsky, who had been helping the broadcaster develop for 11 years, were forced out. Aleksei Venediktov, the broadcaster’s chief editor, and his deputy Vladimir Varfolomeyev were axed from the board too, Ekho Moskvy reported. Both editors are known for fierce criticism of Putin’s government.

In an interview with Gazeta, Yasin suggested the move could only have been orchestrated by the high echelons of power because Gazprom has had a hands-off attitude to the station in the past. “The government apparently wants to establish control over independent media,” Yasin told Gazeta, “and Ekho Moskvy is, in a sense, a flagman. If it changes course, all others would either be falling in line or resist.”

The board shuffle followed a public scolding of the broadcaster’s editorial line by Vladimir Putin. At a January 18 meeting with chief editors of the leading Russian news outlets, Putin accused Ekho Moskvy of serving U.S. interests, and said the station was smearing him nonstop from dusk to dawn.

The next attack against the media took place on February 16, when Russia’s Prosecutor General’s Office launched an investigation against independent Web-based broadcaster Dozhd. The probe came at the request of Robert Shlegel, a parliament member from Putin’s United Russia party, local press reported. Shlegel accused the broadcaster of providing support to, and being a mouthpiece of, the December protest rallies. According to news reports, Shlegel said he suspected that Dozhd had accepted foreign sponsorship to play its role. Putin has long accused critics and opponents of being sponsored by foreigners; following the December protests, he publicly accused U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton of siding with the protesters and supporting them. Prosecutor General Yury Chaika also told reporters that the protests had foreign sponsors.  

Prosecutors have seized accounting documents from Dozhd and the investigation continues. Commenting on the accusations, Mikhail Zygar, Dozhd’s chief editor, said Russia’s fiscal police are well aware of the broadcaster’s funding, and that covering the protests — which took place a few blocks from his newsroom — was not costly. Zygar said the broadcaster used one of its weather cameras on top of the newsroom’s building, and bought footage from the state-controlled news agency RIA Novosti.

Yet another Putin critic, prominent independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta, has been obstructed ahead of Sunday’s vote. Last month, local media reported that authorities, including agents from the Interior Ministry, Federal Security Service (FSB), and more than 100 auditors from Russia’s central bank raided the businesses of the newspaper’s major shareholder, Aleksandr Lebedev. Lebedev’s primary business, Natsionalnyi Rezervnyi Bank, and its 19 branches nationwide were the subject of a “planned” audit, Aleksey Simanovsky of the central bank told journalists on February 18. However, this announcement came after authorities audited Lebedev’s bank last fall and published a 500-page review concluding the bank did not breach the law.

The auditors are apparently interested not in the bank but in the profits Lebedev uses for philanthropy – the raiders confiscated paperwork related to the funding of his humanitarian and media organizations. The latter includes Novaya Gazeta, which is known for relentless criticism of Putin’s government. At the moment all of Lebedev’s personal accounts are frozen, and those funded by the businessman, including Novaya Gazeta‘s staffers, are affected.  

Igor Yakovenko, former head of the Russian Union of Journalists, said all of these moves to intimidate the media — firing Kommersant editors, investigating Dozhd, dismissing Ekho Moskvy’s independent directors, and auditing Lebedev’s bank – is a harbinger of grave changes in the relationship between the power holders and society.

“This is a collection of signals which send an unequivocal message of what is going to happen to Russian media after the March 4 presidential elections. Everything that’s happening to Ekho Moskvy, Dozhd, Lebedev’s business interests – all this is summing up into a clear pattern: That the game is over,” Yakovenko told CPJ.>