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Editors quit Russian media group after Putin family reports

May 13, 2016

Three top editors at a top Russian media group which has reported on the business interests of President Vladimir Putin’s family quit Friday, in the latest blow to the country’s beleaguered media industry.

The RBC group’s daily newspaper recently published a number of high-profile investigations including about the business interests of people close to Putin, among them his reported son-in-law.

The resignations came after the group controlled by billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov said in April that editor-in-chief Elizaveta Osetinskaya, 39, was set to leave to take a sabbatical to study at Stanford.

Her temporary leave was then widely linked to Kremlin pressure on Prokhorov over the media group’s increasingly independent stance and investigative reporting.

In April, Prokhorov’s offices were also searched in what was believed to be a signal to the Kremlin-friendly tycoon to rein in his media managers.

The three editors leaving are Osetinskaya, editor-in-chief of the RBC media group; Roman Badanin, editor-in-chief of the group’s news agency; and Maxim Solyus, editor-in-chief of its daily newspaper.

“Recently we have talked a lot about how to develop RBC further and in these conversations we have been unable to reach a common opinion on important issues,” RBC general director Nikolai Molibog said in a statement.

“That is why we have decided to part ways,” he added.

The group declined to comment on whether the editors departed under pressure from the Kremlin.

Company spokesman Yegor Timofeyev said Osetinskaya would begin her studies at Stanford in September, declining further comment.

Writing on Facebook, Osetinskaya thanked her supporters but said she would not make any comment.

She added that she was “shocked” to see such an outpouring of support. “That means it was not in vain,” she added.

Before taking the helm at RBC in late 2013, Osetinskaya was editor-in-chief of the Russian version of Forbes and was also in charge of the website of Vedomosti.ru, Russia’s top liberal daily.

– ‘Miracle destroyed’ –

Media observers say that during her tenure Osetinskaya whipped the RBC group previously known for its highly dubious practices into shape, building it into one of Russia’s most widely-read media outlets.

Meduza, an independent Russian news portal based in Latvia, said the Kremlin is seeking to destroy the media outlet in its current form out of revenge.

“Friday the 13th of May is a truly nasty day for all of us, both journalists and readers. This is a day when a miracle was destroyed right before our eyes,” it said in an editorial.

Following the search of Prokhorov’s offices in April, the Kremlin denied involvement and Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Friday the presidential administration had nothing to do with Osetinskaya’s departure.

The group did not immediately say who would replace her.

Several other RBC journalists said on Facebook they would soon quit too.

Critics accuse Putin of steadily suppressing independent media and opposition parties since coming to power in 2000.

Many previously independent media outlets have been forced to tone down their criticism or change editorial policies altogether, others have shut down or moved abroad.

The crackdown intensified after Putin returned to the Kremlin for a third term in 2012 following huge protests against his rule.

“When they announced that Osetinskaya would be leaving for several months and the searches began everything was already clear,” Nikolai Petrov, who lectures at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, told AFP.

He and other experts said the authorities were seeking to neuter a critical media ahead of parliamentary elections in September that will take place amid a prolonged economic crisis due in part to the plunge in oil prices and Western sanctions over Ukraine.

Last November Dow Jones and Pearson announced plans to sell their stakes in liberal business daily Vedomosti, opening the way for local businessman Damian Kudryavtsev and making the newspaper more vulnerable to Kremlin pressure.

Dispatches from AFP concerning freedom of information, censorship and news coverage in regions where independent media is under threat.