The publisher of the Russian edition of the American magazine Forbes, Alexander Fedotov, has prevented an article about two Russian tycoons’ criminal activities from going to print in the August 2018 issue. It is the latest in a series of highly concerning attempts by the publisher to undermine the magazine’s independence, which has now seen two editors fired in as many months.
The article, written by journalists Sergei Titov and Elena Berezanskaya, concerns the business dealings of Russian brothers Ziyavudin and Magomed Magomedov, who are currently under arrest accused of embezzlement. Editor-in-Chief, Nikolai Mazurin approved the article for publication in the magazine’s print edition; but found it was later substituted for another article by its publisher without informing the magazine’s editorial team.
Fedotov has since fired Mazurin, who in response to the article being pulled from the paper, published it online and filed a complaint with the Russian prosecutor against the publisher for violating the Russian Law on Mass Media.
Mazurin had only been in position since June 2018, when Fedotov fired the magazine’s previous editor Nikolai Uskov. Uskov has since publicly accused Fedotov of repeatedly interfering in editorial affairs, referencing a particular incident in which Fedotov ordered the magazine not to publish information about the salary of Andrei Kostin, President of the state-controlled VTB financial group.
“The publisher’s actions to replace an article without the knowledge of the newspapers’ editorial team seriously undermines editorial independence. This type of direct censorship doesn’t just breach ethical and professional standards within the media, it also denies the Russian people access to information about matters of public interest,” stated Katie Morris, Head of Europe and Central Asia.
Almost all Forbes’ staff have come out in support of Mazurin, sending a joint letter to Forbes Media, the American parent company, which provides licenses to foreign editions, calling on them to block the appointment of a new editor-in-chief. Mr Fedotov’s ACMG Group bought the Russian edition of Forbes magazine in 2015, following a change to Russian media law limiting foreign media ownership to 20%, which forced its previous German owners to sell.
“This latest incident again raises serious concerns about the influence of media ownership in Russia on editorial independence, in a country were the majority of the media is either directly or indirectly controlled by the State. Laws limiting foreign ownership and brand media that receive money from abroad as ‘foreign agents’ only serve to support this internal control and restrict the free flow of information that deviates from the official narrative,” added Ms Morris.
“We call on Mr Fedotov to reinstate Mazurin, and desist from further direct interference undermining the editorial independence of Forbes magazine. Journalists should be able to conduct their professional duties without harassment or fear of retribution, least of all from the owner of their publication.”
Russian authorities control the media landscape, with most media outlets in Russia owned by the state or their close affiliates. A few independent media outlets remain, broadcasting online or publishing to minority audiences. Others have moved abroad, or been forced to close or change ownership and/or editorial position. Examples of pressure, linked to media ownership, include:
- In June 2017, RBC, a media outlet known for investigative reporting into corruption by Putin’s close associates, was sold to energy oligarch Grigory Berezkin, who owns the free newspaper Metro and the pro-Kremlin tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda. This followed state pressure throughout 2016, including police raids and fraud probes, an excessive civil lawsuit from a state-owned company for “reputational damage” and, in May 2016, the firing of three of RBC’s top editors allegedly due to state pressure.
- In March 2014, Lenta.ru’s Editor in Chief, Galina Timchenko, was fired by the newspaper’s owner Alexander Mamut, and replaced with more pro-Kremlin editor. Half of Lenta.ru’s staff resigned in protested and many went on to join Timchenko in setting up Meduza, an independent online news site, which operates from Latvia.
The authorities have also sought to limit foreign ownership of media outlets and to stigmatise foreign media operating in Russia with the term ‘foreign agent’.
- On 1 January 2016, Federal Law 239-FZ entered into force, restricting foreign ownership of media outlets to 20%.
- In November 2017, as part of Federal Law 327-FZ mentioned above, foreign media outlets in Russia are forced to be listed as “foreign agents,” around a dozen outlets are now listed – including Voice of America and Radio Free Europe.
- In January 2018, the Russian State Duma passed in the first hearing a draft law (#345523-7) which if adopted will amend the Law “On the Mass Media” and the Federal Law “On Information, Information Technologies and Information Protection”, to require that ‘foreign agent’ media outlets to establish the corresponding Russian organisations to represent them and brand their materials as that of a ‘foreign agent’; in the absence of such a disclaimer for online materials, the website guilty of omission is subject to extra-judicial blocking. The proposal also includes a separate mechanism for blocking ‘foreign agent’ media outlets that refuse to address their violations of the established process.” As of July 2018, lawmakers were working on further amendments to the draft bill ahead of a second reading.