Pressure at top Russian daily triggers mass walkout

Anna SMOLCHENKO
The whole political desk at Russian daily Kommersant quit Monday in protest after two veteran journalists were fired

The entire politics desk of one of Russia's top daily newspapers, Kommersant, quit on Monday in protest over censorship after two veteran reporters were fired.

The walkout at the newspaper controlled by pro-Kremlin tycoon Alisher Usmanov is a rare protest in the Russian media industry where nearly all print outlets toe the government line.

Kommersant's staff, media professionals and liberal Russians accused the billionaire of destroying one of Russia's best newspapers.

But speaking to AFP, Kommersant editor-in-chief Vladimir Zhelonkin defiantly rubbished that view.

"They've been saying this for the past 20 years," he told AFP. "Time will tell."

Earlier Monday, deputy editor Gleb Cherkasov said he and another ten journalists -- who make up Kommersant's political desk -- quit in solidarity after the management forced two veteran reporters to resign over a scoop.

"The shareholder has a right to make staffing decisions," Cherkasov wrote on Facebook.

"The employees have a right to disagree with them in the only way possible: by changing their place of work."

In a statement, Zhelonkin said the reporters had been sacked because they violated "journalistic standards".

He said the politics desk quit out of "false solidarity" and to put pressure on the management.

"I do not accept these methods of pressure," Zhelonkin added.

Ivan Safronov and Maxim Ivanov, both of whom worked for a decade at the newspaper, last month wrote an article saying Valentina Matvienko, speaker of the Russian parliament's upper house, could be replaced by Sergei Naryshkin, head of the SVR intelligence service.

- 'Learnt from media' -

In an emailed statement, a spokesperson for Usmanov said the tycoon learnt about the dismissals from news reports.

Usmanov does not interfere in the newspaper's editorial policy and staffing decisions, the unidentified spokesperson added.

"In the case of the two Kommersant journalists, Alisher Usmanov played no role and found out about their dismissal from media reports," the statement said.

Renata Yambaeva, deputy editor at Kommersant, said the dismissals were just the latest example of recent pressure on the newspaper's editorial staff.

Writing on Facebook, Yambaeva, who has worked for 18 years at Kommersant and is not resigning, accused Usmanov of "destroying one of Russia's best media outlets."

Opposition activists accuse President Vladimir Putin of muzzling critics and bringing most Russian media under Kremlin control over his two decades in power.

Metals tycoon Usmanov bought Kommersant in 2006.

Since then one of Russia's top independent dailies has become a shadow of its former self, even though it still regularly features scoops and interviews with top newsmakers.

Its journalists have long complained of pressure.

In 2011, the editor of Kommersant's sister publication was fired after the news magazine Kommersant Vlast printed a photograph showing a ballot paper that featured an obscene message directed at Putin.

The publication at the time covered reports of widespread fraud during the 2011 parliamentary polls.

Russia's top opposition leader Alexei Navalny praised the Kommersant political journalists for quitting.

"I always berated Kommersant journalists for turning into slaves" of the Kremlin-friendly tycoon, Navalny wrote.

"But now I can only say: well done! Dignity has triumphed."

- 'Losing professionals' -

"It hurts to see from outside how the newspaper has been gradually falling into decline," said Meduza, a Russian-language independent media outlet based in Latvia.

"Russian journalism is losing professionals with breakneck speed."

Meduza, citing sources at the Kommersant publishing house, said the April article about Matvienko has displeased the owners so much that even the dismissal of the newspaper's chief had been discussed.

Meduza itself was set up by the former chief editor of Russian news website Lenta.ru, Galina Timchenko, who was sacked by Kremlin-friendly tycoon, Alexander Mamut, in 2014.

Her departure triggered an exodus of dozens of journalists from Lenta.ru.

"The publication's shareholders decided wisely -- 'Why would you need the political desk in Kommersant newspaper if there's no politics in the country,'" quipped StalinGulag, a prominent anti-Kremlin blogger.