Reporters Without Borders (RSF) is alarmed by repeated interference in editorial decisions at the leading Russian business newspaper Vedomosti since its acquisition in March. This meddling is clearly one more phase in the process by which Kremlin allies have taken control of the Russian media.
In one of the latest absurd developments at Vedomosti, new interim editor Andrei Shmarov has banned the publication of polls by the Levada Centre, an independent polling and market research company that recently reported a fall in President Vladimir Putin’s popularity. What’s more, Vedomosti will no longer even mention the company.
“The interference in Vedomosti’s editorial policies is a new blow to independent journalism in Russia, one already seen when Kommersant was acquired,” said Jeanne Cavelier, the head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk. “We condemn the pressure being put on Vedomosti’s staff and we offer them our full support.”
As soon as it was created in 1999, Vedomosti established itself as a leading newspaper in the Russian business world, publishing articles in partnership with the Financial Times and Wall Street Journal, whose respective owners, Pearson and Dow Jones, were Vedomosti shareholders until a new law in 2015 banned foreign investors from owning more than 20% of a Russian media outlet.
There have been repeated editorial meddling at Vedomosti ever since its sale in March to Alexei Golubovich, a businessman and former oil magnate, and Konstantin Zyatkov, a tabloid publisher and former editor of the weekly Argumenty i Fakty. On the night of 12 April, Shmarov, the new interim editor, suppressed an article criticizing the way the state oil company Rosneft was being run by its CEO, Igor Sechin. On 30 March, he changed a headline with negative connotations at the top of a story about the same company.
The week before that, at his first meeting with his staff, Shmarov acknowledged that he did not read Vedomosti and did not know its code of conduct – which is regarded as a model in Russian journalism – and said he would not oppose shareholder interference in the work of its journalists.
His comments triggered a wave of newsroom resignations (by Maria Zheleznova, Ivan Safronov, Alina Didkovskaya, Sergei Paranko and Maxim Tovkaylo). They also shocked advertisers and prompted cancellations of subscriptions. In an editorial on 23 April, the staff reiterated their determination to defend the newspaper’s independence.
Russia is ranked 149th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2020 World Press Freedom Index.