Reporters Without Borders (RSF) voices its support for the staff of Forbes Russia, who are fighting to preserve their editorial independence after one of the magazine’s articles was censored, in the latest evidence of growing control over independent media outlets in Russia.
The Moscow-based monthly magazine’s journalists discovered the censorship when the latest issue came back from the printers on 25 July and they saw that a 12-page article was completely missing. Forbes Russia’s owners had argued against publishing, but the editor had insisted and the article was formatted and included in the version sent to the printers.
Still available online, the missing story traced the rise and fall of influential billionaire Ziyavudin Magomedov and his brother, whose arrest in March sent shockwaves through political and business circles in Russia.
Dismayed by this act of censorship, the staff lost no time in reacting. Arguing that it contravened Russia’s media law, they referred it to the prosecutor’s office on 26 July. A few hours later, the magazine’s editor, Nikolai Mazurin, was fired and its journalists were deprived of access to its website.
On 30 July, the staff appealed for help to Forbes Media, the US company that licences foreign editions to publishers around the world and in theory still maintains a degree of oversight.
The crisis has confirmed the original fears about a 2014 law drastically limiting foreign investment in the media and thereby facilitating takeovers of leading independent outlets. Owned by Germany’s Axel Springer media group, Forbes Russia, whose reporting was not to the Kremlin’s liking, was always seen as one of the law’s leading targets.
In late 2015, Axel Springer was forced to surrender the Forbes Russia licence to ACMG, a Russian advertising and glamour press group owner by Alexander Fedotov, who immediately announced that he thought Forbes Russia was “a bit too politicized.”
The magazine began to publish more and more advertorials and, in the spring of 2017, Fedotov tried to change its editorial charter, which was based on Forbes USA’s, in order to be able to exercise more influence over editorial decisions. Then editor Nikolai Uskov, who objected, was fired in June 2018.
“We fully support the staff of Forbes Russia, who are fighting to save their editorial independence,” said Johann Bihr, the head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk. “This censorship can only be regarded as a flagrant violation of the media law and as a case of obstruction of the professional activity of journalists. We call on Forbes Media to put a stop to Alexander Fedotov’s meddling with the magazine’s editorial policies or else this brand’s international prestige is liable to be badly affected.”
ACMG claims that the story about the Magomedov brothers was pulled in order to avoid any legal risk. But it was on ACMG’s insistence that Forbes Russia’s lawyers had compiled a series of comments about the article, which had been modified to take them into account before being approved by the editor and sent to the printers.
The Magomedov brothers’ company has meanwhile let it be known that it had no intention of suing the magazine.
Based on the reputation of the US magazine founded in 1917 and now jointly owned by a Hong Kong company and the Forbes family, the Forbes Media group has, in principle, a right of veto over key decisions taken by its 15 or so international franchises, including the appointment of editors.
Russia is ranked 148th out of 180 countries in RSF's 2018 World Press Freedom Index.