Censorship row threatens Russia’s top business newspaper

A row over censorship has plunged Russia’s top business newspaper into a crisis that could either see it fall under the Kremlin’s control or torpedo a deal to sell it, leaving it on the verge of bankruptcy.

Staff at Vedomosti are in open revolt against new acting editor Andrei Shmarov after they say he banned writing about taboo topics for the Kremlin, including criticism of Vladimir Putin’s move to stay in power potentially until 2036 and independent polling showing Russians are losing confidence in the president’s rule.

The scandal has already sullied the newspaper’s reputation to the extent that one of its prospective buyers, Arbat Capital chairman Alexei Golubovich, has withdrawn, according to a person with knowledge of the situation.

The conflict, according to Vedomosti reporters, is only the latest sign that Russia is unwilling to tolerate independent journalism after several other outlets were sold to Kremlin-friendly owners and installed pliant editors in recent years. 

“This could be the end for the paper that symbolised Putin’s oil era. Vedomosti was born alongside Putin’s state capitalism and described how the system was born, grew, and strengthened,” said Maxim Tovkailo, the paper’s web editor. “Now that system is destroying Vedomosti.”

Employees also say the clash at Vedomosti — founded and formerly co-owned by the Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal — will cost Russian business an independent voice following disappointment with the Kremlin’s frugal stimulus package to mitigate the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic.

Vedomosti was bought by a consortium led by Demian Kudryavtsev, the former publisher of its competitor Kommersant, in 2015 after Russia limited foreign ownership of media to 20 per cent. He announced in March that it would be sold to Konstantin Zyatkov, a publisher, and Mr Golubovich. 

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Mr Shmarov then took over as editor before the deal was completed and has now become a major obstacle to its sale, according to two people involved in the talks.

Mr Zyatkov and Mr Golubovich say that Mr Kudryavtsev suggested appointing Mr Shmarov and claim they do not have control. However, Mr Kudyravtsev claims hiring Mr Shmarov was their idea and says he no longer runs the paper. 

In an editorial published last week without Mr Shmarov’s consent, Vedomosti’s staff accused its prospective buyers of fronting for unnamed forces and “undermining trust in the publication” by allowing censorship.

“Without its reputation, Vedomosti will become yet another servient, controllable media outlet whose goal is to realise the interests and ambitions of its official and undeclared owners instead of meeting its readers’ needs for verified news and quality analysis,” they wrote. 

Mr Zyatkov and Mr Golubovich declined to comment on those allegations.

The Kremlin denies playing a role in Mr Shmarov’s appointment or requiring him to censor Vedomosti. “Censorship is unacceptable,” Dmitry Peskov, Mr Putin’s spokesman, told reporters on Friday. “We have an interest in Vedomosti maintaining its high professional standards, as it has up to now.”

When Mr Shmarov became editor in March, however, he reportedly told staff he had stopped reading Vedomosti, not familiarised himself with its standards, and defended the owners’ right to meddle in the editorial process.

Mr Kudryavtsev says that he never interfered once in the five years he owned the paper and does not control it now, while Mr Zyatkov and Mr Golubovich say they do not control the paper themselves so cannot censor it either. 

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“He unceremoniously set everyone against him from day one. He’s behaving like a bull in a china shop,” said Dmitry Simakov, Vedomosti’s executive editor.

A few days later, Mr Shmarov gave a story about state oil company Rosneft a more favourable headline. He then removed a column by economist Konstantin Sonin criticising Rosneft’s powerful chief executive Igor Sechin.

The original headline read “the state may formally lose control of Rosneft” and was changed to “the state will retain a controlling stake in Rosneft through a complex deal”. Mr Shmarov said it was his right as editor to take the column down “because it was bad”.

On Wednesday, staff claim Mr Shmarov banned citing the Levada Center, Russia’s only independent pollster, or publishing criticism of Mr Putin’s move to sidestep presidential term limits.

Vedomosti staff say Mr Shmarov explained his decisions by alluding to angry phone calls from powerful people. “He told me personally that the Kremlin told him not to publish Levada, otherwise we’ll all get kicked out,” Mr Simakov said.

Mr Shmarov declined to say whether he had discussed the paper with the Kremlin but denied they had influenced the changes. “I didn’t get any calls like that. I make all my decisions at my own discretion,” he said.

Mr Shmarov also said he had not banned citing the Levada Center, pointing to a column in Vedomosti by its lead researcher that ran on Monday, but said reporters had cited its polls unfairly often at the expense of two polling agencies close to the Kremlin. He has also said he has since familiarised himself with the standards and claims they allow him to take down articles.

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Launched in 1999, a few months before Mr Putin became president, Vedomosti won plaudits for its independent coverage in a market dominated by oligarch-owned media. Its editorial standards, adopted from the FT and the WSJ, helped protect it from the creeping censorship that saw journalists resign en masse from several other outlets in recent years after Kremlin-friendly oligarch owners appointed pliant editors.

The situation is complicated by the fact that the sale has yet to go through after Moscow’s strict quarantine measures shut down legal and notary offices.

As the deal remains pending, Mr Kudryavtsev says he can no longer support Vedomosti, and staff say it is not clear who will pay for employee salaries in May.

Regarding Mr Golubovich’s withdrawal from the deal, both Mr Kudryavtsev and Mr Zyatkov declined to comment further except to say they hoped it would go through.

Mr Shmarov told the FT he was not “at war” and hoped to repair his relationship with staff. But many of them are already looking for new jobs.

If Mr Shmarov stays, Mr Tovkailo said, “what are we going to write about? We can’t write about politics, we can’t say anything bad about [big state companies], and there won’t be any small business left.”



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