A Eurasianet partner post from RFE/RL
MOSCOW -- Just a few years ago, Russian media group RBC had its own reputation to worry about.
It had acknowledged notoriety for taking payments to publish erroneous reports and hidden advertising, known locally as dzhinsa, in its coverage of politics and business.
But it's since become one of Russia's most trusted outlets shedding light on the nexus of money and power, even peering deep inside President Vladimir Putin's circle of friends and, it appears, family.
Now, a barrage of national TV reports casting billionaire RBC owner Mikhail Prokhorov in a harsh light as well as raids on a clutch of his companies have led to speculation that the Kremlin is unhappy with the independent editorial tack his media group has taken.
Russian authorities stifled media and brought national television networks to heel in Putin's first two presidential terms (2000-08), most famously with the Gazprom Media takeover of the NTV channel in 2001. Opponents say the crackdown has continued in Putin's current term with the dismissal of independent-minded chief editors at popular online news outlets, including Lenta.ru in March 2014.
But with a second year of recession looming and elections slated for September and March 2018 -- and following a flurry of attention after RBC published an investigation into a woman later said to be Putin's daughter -- observers say the Kremlin could see RBC's independence and rising clout as a fresh threat.
"It doesn't need to be the Kremlin got upset with a particular story and decided to crack down," Arkady Ostrovsky, author of The Invention Of Russia and a correspondent for The Economist magazine, says. "It's the general line that RBK is pursuing. I'm sure they have upset a lot of interests, and those interests have lobbying power."
Breaking a Taboo
The transformation of RBC began after its purchase in 2010 by entrepreneur Prokhorov, who pumped in resources and hired experienced journalists.
It has shot to prominence in the last three years with a string of investigations focusing on the crossroads of business and politics. It is those closely guarded stories that have elevated niche business titles like RBC -- derived from the portmanteau RosBiznesKonsalting -- to the vanguard of public life.
"We must take into account that in recent years, business publications have taken on the role of the most important social-political media," says Galina Timchenko, who founded the new, Riga-based Meduza website after she left Lenta.ru. "The most resonant investigations have been published specifically in publications like RBC and Vedomosti," which, she notes, are thought of as niche publishers.
In January 2015, RBC became the first outlet to write about Katerina Tikhonova, the young woman believed to be Putin's younger daughter -- despite the Kremlin's long-running refusal to confirm family details -- and who is running a development project at Moscow State University.
But RBC broke the public silence on Tikhonova, and it has continued digging into Putin's alleged inner circle, investigating the rapid enrichment of Tikhonova's purported husband, the 33-year-old Kirill Shamalov, the son of a longtime friend of Putin.
"RBC broke a taboo in Russia," says Natalya Rostova, a Russian media expert and visiting scholar for the U.S.-headquartered Kennan Institute. "This is a taboo subject. In all the 15 years that Putin had been in power at the moment, they never said anything about the family."
It has continued. On April 25, RBC published a fresh investigation that found a friend of Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin and a former Putin classmate to be newly minted oil tycoons.
RBC also covered the massive Panama Papers financial-document leak in great detail, drawing the ire of Putin allies. During his Sunday night TV show on April 10, host and state media boss Dmitry Kiselyov held up a copy of RBC's newspaper that carried a story on the Panama leak with a front page picture of Putin. Kiselyov attacked RBC for being clandestine "assistants" of the United States, whose security services Putin has blamed for the data dump disclosing extensive ties to offshore companies among the global political elite as well as individuals close to Putin.
On April 11, Gazprom Media's REN TV attacked Prokhorov for himself holding assets in offshore accounts.
RBC's overhaul began with the appointment of media managers like Derk Sauer, a Dutch national who founded The Moscow Times and Independent Media. Named president in November 2012, Sauer pledged to revive RBC's "good name and reputation."
"A successful publishing company always starts with content, good content," Sauer tells RFE/RL. "We are very clear that RBC is not an opposition channel. It's a big news information channel. We wanted to give unbiased, objective information to the Russian middle class."
According to Timchenko, RBC's progress accelerated with the appointment in January 2014 of Elizaveta Osetinskaya as editor in chief presiding over RBC's TV station, magazine, newspaper, and website.
"RBC is an industry leader. Since the death of Lenta.ru, RBC has become the most important Internet publication," Timchenko says.
RBC overtook Lenta.ru as the most cited Internet publication in 2014, a position it has held onto ever since, according to Medialogiya, RBC did not even make the top 30.
Timchenko says the only comparable turnaround in image for a contemporary Russian media organization was that of state news agency RIA Novosti under Svetlana Mironyuk. That agency overhauled its reputation as a staid Soviet-era propaganda outlet to become seen by many as a Western-style news agency after Mironyuk became editor in chief in 2006.
She was ousted from her post in late 2013, when RIA Novosti was folded into new state media behemoth Rossiya Segodnya under Kiselyov.
RBC has experienced rough patches in the past. Last year, pro-Kremlin nationalist activists with the National Liberation Movement rallied outside RBC's offices several times, calling for the sacking of Osetinskaya and Sauer.
In July, ultranationalist lawmaker Vladimir Zhirinovsky joined the calls.
Sauer left his position in August to join another Prokhorov business, Oneksim, which was among the targets of the April raids.
Writing on Snob, a media outlet also owned by Prokhorov, opposition socialite-cum-journalist Ksenia Sobchak cast the pressure on RBK as the latest blow against Russia's embattled liberal minority.
In a widely discussed piece, Sobchak mused that the minority who oppose Putin should perhaps simply grin and bear what is happening in the country. She then recalled the proverbial frog being boiled alive.
"It seems to be me that it is getting significantly hotter in our glass," Sobchak wrote. "The conclusion from this observation is this: 'You need to learn to live in new conditions -- in the hotter temperature of the water. But I fear that this is precisely the conclusion that all those boiled frogs came to."
Tom Balmforth covers Russia and other former Soviet republics.
Copyright (c) 2016. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.
A Eurasianet partner post from RFE/RL