After Russian media company RBC underwent an editorial reshuffle last week, media insiders are once again raising the issue of the freedom of the press in Russia.

RBC office building in Moscow. Photo: TASS

The recent editorial shakeup at the Russian media company RBC, one of the largest and most respected media outlets in the nation, has already spurred a variety of opinions and speculation about the true reasons behind the move.

Did the publication have too independent editorial policy and somehow exceed the limits of what the government deemed to be acceptable? Was it the result of economic troubles within the company? Or was it simply a power play against a leading Russian oligarch – Mikhail Prokhorov, who may have overreached in his political ambitions?

While the Kremlin has disavowed any role in the editorial shakeup, which involved the dismissal of three top editorial staffers (the editor-in-chief of the RBC news agency Roman Badanin, the editor-in-chief of the RBC newspaper Maxim Solyus and the editor-in-chief of the overall media group Elizaveta Osetinskaya), media insiders remain skeptical. They suggest that the sudden move hints at further troubles ahead for any media company that attempts to investigate too closely the business affairs of the Russian elite. If so, that could have a chilling effect on the freedom of speech in Russia.

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How did it happen?

The politically ambitious Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov is the owner of the RBC holding company, and that appears to be one of the key issues at the core of the current scandal. When the company came under Prokhorov’s control, RBC was a non-performing asset that required restructuring. With his financial backing, though, RBC became an economic turnaround story.

Soon, the company started to become profitable and now has become one of the most respected mass media outlets in the country. The publication conducts a number of journalistic investigations, meaning that the editorial office staff works long hours trying to access exclusive information. Moreover, the editorial staff’s payroll is quite above the average for Russian journalists, ensuring that RBC is able to attract the top journalists.

As a result of the prominence of Prokhorov and the high quality of RBC’s journalistic investigations, the scandal soon gained momentum. Journalists started writing about the holding as the last outpost of the free press, speculating whether all its employees should follow their leadership’s resignation.

In the meantime, the publication did not stop working. A popular saying in the Russian media community is, “Whatever you people do, the newspaper will be out tomorrow.” However, the question arises: What kind of newspaper will it be?

In fact, it is certainly not the first and probably not the last scandal in the Russian media. The most visible incidents happened with Russia’s TV channels: first NTV, then TV6, and then RenTV. In addition to that, the leaders of some major newspapers have been replaced. Recently, the opposition radio station Echo of Moscow experienced some troubles as well. Every such scandal raises the quite logical question: What is happening with the freedom of speech in Russia and where are its limits?

The consequences of the RBC shakeup

The majority of media insiders believe that the RBC move was a political decision that is bound to affect the entire media industry. Nikolai Svanidze, a well-known Russian journalist and historian, argued that the abrupt staff change at one of the leading independent Russian media companies was a message to everyone in the industry. “It’s disturbing news for the other media; it means that they all should behave in a more cautious way and avoid touching certain delicate issues,” he told Russia Direct. “In my opinion, the main reason here is that some of the RBC stories enraged a very influential part of our ruling elites.”

Many sources claim that the RBC scandal is connected with its publication of a story about an oyster farm near “Putin’s palace” (the Russian President’s residency on the Black Sea) and Putin’s picture appearing in an article about the offshore corruption scandal (the “Panama Papers” scandal).

The Kremlin argues that it has nothing to do with the RBC staff reshuffle. The Russian President’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov says, “We have stated more than once and we repeat it now that there was no pressure either on the editorial policy of the holding or on the holding itself. There is no question about that.” He added further that, during a recent meeting with the editor-in-chief of the RBC media group Elizaveta Osetinskaya, her dismissal was not discussed.

Andrei Pertsev, a journalist with Kommersant, a leading Russian business newspaper, is convinced that the dismissals serve to reinstate the unwritten rules of censorship. “You’d better not touch Vladimir Putin’s family and his near circle, or link his name to the offshore scandals and palaces. The Church should be referred to in a respectful way,” he writes.

Meanwhile, Svanidze is convinced that RBC’s reshuffle is not related to the holding’s financial situation. If it were true, the dismissals would have spanned not only the editorial staff, but also the commercial divisions as well. “It is clear to me that the matter has a political inner history. Economy has nothing to do with it, because if it did, the entire commercial division would be hit rather than the editorial team alone,” he says. “The people who left RBC were the ones who actually made it an industry leader. Mikhail Prokhorov, the RBC owner, is currently under pressure, and it is likely that he decided to offer this gambit (to sacrifice quality in order to save the game). Whether it works, is yet to be seen.”

The journalists of the lower and middle levels promise to work until the first ban of any offending material. After the dismissals, there have been reports that now all publications have to be approved by RBC General Director Nikolai Molibog.

Journalist and philologist Alexander Arkhangelsky is convinced that it is an emotional, rather than considered, decision by the managers and owners. “It is pure politics. And it is not a political calculation, but the consequences of a political insult. In this sense, the three top editorial figures leaving is not just an administrative decision, or even a compromise, but a symbolic move marking yet another milestone,” he told Russia Direct.

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How will it end? 

Arkhangelsky is certain that RBC’s top editors will be replaced by strong, principled journalists – but just bringing in new talent is not a panacea. Without the political angles to its stories, RBC will lose ground to the narrowly specialized Vedomosti newspaper and lose popularity. “The consequences, including those for the authorities, will be bad. If the media policy is overstrained, it is easy to fall into a tailspin. Yet, we live in a time of emotions posed as calculation,” concludes Arkhangelsky.

Svanidze is convinced that RBC will remain in the market, although its quality of content might change. “Every media organization has a niche. There are a few publications that hold their own independent position, and when one disappears it leaves a breach that no one can fill,” the historian explains. “If RBC turns into an easy-to-manipulate publication, it will be equivalent to its disappearance from the market. The name will remain, while the content will change. This has already happened more than once before.”

The future of freedom of speech in Russia

One important issue is that society does not appear to be very attentive and sensitive to changes happening in the Russian media industry and, as a result, does not really care about RBC. Elena Shestopal, a political scientist and professor at Moscow State University, is certain that the situation around RBC worries only journalists. “We’ve had other changes in the media, but they haven’t really affected society. This situation is important only for a limited number of groups, not for Russian public opinion as a whole. Sociological surveys also confirm that. It won’t have any significant effect on the country as a whole,” she commented to Russia Direct.

According to Shestopal, the public has more interest in the events in the Khovanskoye cemetery in Moscow (a massive fight between two ethnic groups) than in the media scandal. Such an attitude is caused by people’s belief that the RBC case has nothing to do with their real daily life while ethnic infighting may affect everyone.

Surprisingly, Russians value the freedom of speech and consider it to be the main achievement of democracy. “In general, the ‘freedom of speech’ concept has been very well adapted and assimilated by society. Under no conditions people are ready to give it up, and the opinion polls of the last 20 years confirm that. However, people do not associate the RBC case with the freedom of speech,” Shestopal explains.

It appears that Russian citizens refer to the freedom of speech as to something that applies to them personally but not to the work of the mass media. “Besides, in the past decades, the media has shown that they do not value freedom of speech too much — it has not been as important as advertisement and revenue. The media has earned that reputation for themselves,” the analyst concludes. “As the media leaders prefer to make deals rather than to stand up for their own position, money has always been more important than freedom of speech.”

As for the journalists who decided to keep working at RBC, the chairman of the Presidential Human Rights Council Mikhail Fedotov has promised to look into the situation. He recommended “not to jump to conclusions” about the reasons for the dismissal of the leaders of the RBC editorial team. “Let’s wait for the journalists to have their say. If they say they were forced to leave, and were intimidated or dismissed against their will, this will be something to lend an ear to,” he said to Interfax. “If we do not hear any such reports, then the reason lies elsewhere.”