The longtime editor of Russia’s leading internet news site, Lenta.ru, has been fired by the company’s tycoon owner and replaced with a Kremlin-friendly successor, the latest episode in a media crackdown by Vladimir Putin’s government.
The media interference began months ago but intensified in the weeks leading up to Russia’s military takeover of Crimea.
Lenta.ru’s billionaire owner, Alexander Mamut, did not give an official reason for the firing of Galina Timchenko, who has been in charge of Lenta’s editorial content since the site was founded in 1999 and led Lenta’s transformation into Russia’s most popular – and profitable – independent news site, with 20m readers.
In an open letter posted on Lenta’s website, dozens of the outlet’s editors and writers decried the move as a direct attack on the publication’s independent editorial line. They accused Ms Timchenko’s replacement, Alexei Goreslavsky, of serving as an editorial policeman for the Kremlin.
“The firing of the independent editor-in-chief, especially by someone from the Kremlin offices, this is a violation of the laws of journalism, of not allowing censorship,” the staff members wrote.
“Over the past few years, the space of free media in Russia has shrunk dramatically. Some outlets are directly controlled by the Kremlin, others through gate keepers, others through editors who are scared to lose their work. Certain media outlets either have already closed, or will close soon . . . We certainly expected they would come for us as well.”
Mr Goreslavsky was hired to run internal communications at Afisha-Rambler-SUP, Lenta’s parent company, following a merger between the media assets of Mr Mamut and fellow tycoon Vladimir Potanin last year.
Anton Nossik, Lenta.ru’s founder, noted that Mr Goreslavsky had been appointed after Mr Mamut’s enlarged media holding had been deemed a strategic enterprise by the Russian government. “When an entity is labeled strategic, authorities usually want to make sure they have leverage to control it from within,” Mr Nossik said.
Mr Nossik noted that following Mr Goreslavsky’s appointment the editorial line of Gazeta.ru, one of the other media assets in the holding, had changed significantly. “[Mr Goreslavsky] moved in and fired the chief editor, made replacements and changed the guidelines. And now Gazeta.ru is not very different from any government-run, government-sponsored media. You can predict its stand now on any issue in which there is an official Kremlin position,” Mr Nossik said.
While Russian media watchers have long voiced concern over the fate of independent internet outlets, some of which have fallen into Kremlin-friendly hands in recent years, those fears had seemed largely misplaced until last year, when the local media landscape began to change dramatically.
Late last year, Vladimir Putin announced a surprise overhaul of state-run RIA Novosti, placing one of Russia’s most ultra-conservative commentators at its head. A few weeks later the independent TV station Dozhd lost its main cable and satellite providers in what the channel’s owner said was the result of political pressure.
Ms Timchenko said on Wednesday that Lenta had received a warning from Russia’s communications regulator over a hyperlink that linked to an interview with the nationalist leader of Ukraine’s Right Sector party.
However, Mr Nossik noted that not even Mr Mamut, his former boss, had cited the warning as the reason for Ms Timchenko’s dismissal. “There is no reason that could be invented overnight to justify the firing of the most successful media manager in the market,” he said.