Russian oil giant Rosneft, run by a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, is wielding growing influence over the nation’s remaining independent media outlets, already squeezed by tightening press freedoms and pressure from the Kremlin.
Now, reporters at the country’s top liberal business daily Vedomosti — shaken in March by an announcement from owner Demyan Kudryavtsev that he planned to sell the newspaper — have denounced censorship under its new acting editor-in-chief, Andrei Shmarov, who was appointed in late March, ahead of the sale’s completion.
Journalists say they were barred from covering negative opinion polls of Putin, and that editors interfered in coverage of Rosneft.
On Friday, the new owner was announced as the head of a little-known regional news agency called FederalPress, Ivan Yeryomin.
An investigation last month by several Russian news outlets, including Vedomosti, revealed that Rosneft leveraged control over the paper through debts owed by Kudryavtsev to the oil giant’s bank.
Kudryavtsev denied these allegations; Rosneft has not reacted.
“The real owner is Rosneft through a chain of debt,” said Vedomosti editor-at-large Maxim Trudolyubov, who has worked at the paper since it started in 1999.
He said the new editor-in-chief was “selected to run the newspaper favorably to the new owner… They just wanted to silence it.”
He described Rosneft chief executive Igor Sechin as “some sort of a hitman” employing aggressive tactics.”
“He plays a complicated game of takeovers to build his empire at the expense of other oligarchs. It’s about assets, money, influence,” Trudolyubov said.
The newspaper wrote in a recent editorial: “Vedomosti will just become another dependent and controlled media outlet.”
On Friday, the paper wrote that the change of ownership deal undoubtedly had “not only commercial aims.”
Its editorial suggested that “unnamed figures who really stand behind the official buyers … see the publication as an instrument of influence, not a business.”
“This is a public humiliation of the Vedomosti brand and its editorial staff,” Meduza news site editor-in-chief Galina Timchenko said.
Last month it was the turn of another respected business daily, RBK. Rosneft is suing the newspaper for a record 43 billion rubles (US$612 million) over an article about its activities in Venezuela.
“We aren’t worried, because we know our work is correct and honest,” said Timofei Dzyadko, an energy reporter at the paper.
However, RBK editor-in-chief Pyotr Kanayev said the lawsuit was surprising.
“We published [an] article based on public information and we’re not the source of this information,” he said, adding that RBK’s news coverage “doesn’t serve anybody’s interests, only our audience.”
A legal defeat against the oil giant would deal the media outlet a serious blow.
The two decades of Putin’s rule have seen all the national television channels as well as a number of radio stations and newspapers pass into the hands of Kremlin-friendly owners.
Vedomosti launched in September 1999 as Putin emerged as Russia’s dominant political figure.
The paper was cofounded and co-owned by Dutch entrepreneur Derk Sauer’s Independent Media, the Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal, demonstrating Russia’s entry into the fold of Western capitalist countries. It has changed hands several times since its first print run as lawmakers introduced new legislation limiting foreign ownership of Russian media.