Kommersant Firings and Russian Free Speech
By Marren Haneberg
Eleven reporters from Kommersant quit on May 20 after two of their colleagues were fired for refusing to reveal their sources in a report about “a possible change of leadership in the upper chamber of parliament” (RFE/RL). These reporters made up the entire political staff at Kommersant, one of Russia’s most prominent newspapers. Another 180 staff signed a joint letter that denounced the newspaper’s shareholders for “destroying one of Russia’s best media outlets” to make “short-term political gains” and “that until further notice, Kommersant would not report on any Russian political news” (“HRW: Kommersant Shake-Up…”, Soric).
The article discussed the possible demotion of Federation Council chairwoman Valentina Matviyenko, “a staunch Kremlin ally and former St. Petersburg governor who has headed the upper house since 2011,” and quoted “sources close to the government” saying that Sergei Naryshkin, head of SVR, Russia’s foreign intelligence agency, would replace her and she would be move to position at the State Pension Fund (“Political Reporters Quit…”). Television station Dozhd reported similar information on April 17 that the Kremlin was discussing removing Matviyenko for her connection to an arrest in a murder probe.
The two reporters who were fired, Maxim Ivanov and Ivan Safronov, worked as reporters for nearly ten years each. According to Safronov, “the entire management team took part in publishing the story, and the authors even received a bonus payment for it… the complaints started a week later” when Matviyenko complained to a shareholder (“A crisis at…”). Safonov would not reveal his sources, high-placed government officials, as he feared they would be punished, and soon lost his job.
According to Kommersant deputy editor in chief, Renata Yambayeva, the newspaper’s owner, Alisher Usmanov, made the decision to fire the two veteran reporters. She also said that Usmanov is friendly with the Kremlin, though his spokesperson denied this claim.
Kremlin “Gutting” Independent Media
Human Rights Watch denounced the incident as “the latest episode in the gutting” of independent media in Russia (“HRW: Kommersant Shake-Up…”). The Kommersant situation is only one of many censorship incidents in Russia, where “some independent broadcasters, publications, and online news sources continue to operate, [but] regularly face pressure from the government” (Freedom House). Since Vladimir Putin returned to presidency in 2012, the Kremlin has passed numerous laws censoring newspapers and speech on the internet. It has forced changes in media agency editorial policies as well as ownership, often to Kremlin-friendly oligarchs, as is the case with Kommersant owner Usmanov.
Usmanov, “one of the wealthiest people in the world” owns “a vast media empire which includes Kommersant, Megafon, one of the top four mobile providers in the country, and the Mail.Ru Group which owns stakes in two of the most popular social networks in the Russian-speaking world, Vkontakte and Odnoklassniki” (“Russia: Kommersant staff…”). He is capable of using his ownership to control speech and communication on these platforms as needed for the Kremlin, which he has close ties with.
Parallels to RBC in 2016
The incident at Kommersant is similar to what occurred at RBC in 2016. RBC was the only major Russian media outlet to report on the Panama Papers, which were “leaked financial documents that included information on Putin’s ties to businessman and musician Sergei Roldugin” (Gorbunova). After the outlet “published several articles about President Putin’s alleged luxury residence, and about the vast fortunes of his family and inner circle” in April and May 2016, someone at the top fired “editor-in-chief Elizaveta Osetinskaya, the chief editor of RBC’s news agency Roman Badanin, and chief editor of RBC’s newspaper, Maxim Solyus.” Over the following two months, more than half of its employees resigned in protest. Eventually, “Elizabeth Golikova and Igor Trosnikov of TASS, a state-owned news agency” became RBC’s chief editors (Gorbunova). While RBC still carries out investigative reporting, it no longer reports on sensitive topics such as “Putin’s family and inner circle” (Gorbunova). Similarly, Kommersant will likely stop reporting on sensitive political situations.
According to Human Rights Watch, “the Russian government owns, partially owns, or exerts considerable influence over all the main television broadcasters” and all widely circulated newspapers are pro-Kremlin, with the exception of Novaya Gateza, “which has retained ts editorial independence” (Gorbunova). Freedom House rated Russia’s press freedom as “Not Free” in 2017, and government control over the press has since increased (Freedom House).
Censorship Laws Increasing
In March, Putin signed a set of laws making the spread of fake news illegal. These laws restrict freedom of speech on the internet, which previously did not have major restrictions. They give the prosecutor general “essentially unconstrained authority to determine that any speech is unacceptable under the new law” and circumvent the courts (Tamkin, Grigoryan). Lawmakers claim the law’s purpose is to prevent fearmongering, but the timing is uncanny with Putin’s dropping approval ratings.
The Yarovaya Laws, passed in 2016, are similar to the fake news laws. Intended for antiterrorism, according to Kremlin lawmakers, the laws most notably require “internet service providers to retain and allow decryption of communications data for possible inspection by security agencies” (Freedom House, “Yarovaya Law Obliges…”).
The incidents at Kommersant demonstrate that the Kremlin views freedom of speech as a threat to its legitimacy. Putin’s dropping popularity is a factor in the Kremlin’s increasing restriction of speech. Additionally, reports about shuffles at the top, such as Matviyenko’s, could trigger questions about legitimacy or integrity of government officials. In the past, Russians discontent with political situations organized protests via the internet, but now the Kremlin has power to restrict these using fake news laws. The Kremlin will continue to restrict speech as needed to stay in power and shield itself from political unrest.
“A crisis at ‘Kommersant’ What newspaper staff were told vs. what managers claim publicly.” May 21, 2019. Meduza. https://meduza.io/en/feature/2019/05/21/a-crisis-at-kommersant.
Freedom House. 2017. “Freedom of the Press 2017.” https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-press/2017/russia.
Gorbunova, Yulia. 2017. “Online and On All Fronts: Russia’s Assault on Freedom of Expression.” July 18. Human Rights Watch. https://www.hrw.org/report/2017/07/18/online-and-all-fronts/russias-assault-freedom-expression.
Grigoryan, Astghik. 2019. “Russia: Russian President Signs Anti-fake News Laws.” April 11. Library of Congress: Global Legal Monitor. https://www.loc.gov/law/foreign-news/article/russia-russian-president-signs-anti-fake-news-laws/.
“HRW: Kommersant Shake-Up Latest Episode In ‘Gutting’ Of Independent Russian Media.” May 22, 2019. RadioFreeEurope/RadioLiberty. https://www.rferl.org/a/hrw-kommersant-shake-up-latest-episode-in-gutting-of-independent-russian-media/29957084.html.
“Political Reporters Quit Russia’s Kommersant En Masse In Solidarity With Fired Colleagues.” May 20, 2019. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. https://www.rferl.org/a/political-reporters-quit-russia-s-kommersant-en-masse-in-solidarity-with-sacked-colleagues/29952701.html.
“Russia: Kommersant staff walk out in protest of censorship, triggering journalism ethics debate.” May 27, 2019. GlobalVoices. https://globalvoices.org/2019/05/27/russia-kommersant-staff-walk-out-in-protest-of-censorship-triggering-journalism-ethics-debate/.
Soric, Miodrag. 2019. “Firings at Russia’s Kommersant newspaper prompt press freedom concerns.” May 21. Deutsche Welle. https://www.dw.com/en/firings-at-russias-kommersant-newspaper-prompt-press-freedom-concerns/a-48822489.
Tamkin, Emily. 2019. “With Putin’s signature, ‘fake news’ bill becomes law.” March 18. Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2019/03/18/with-putins-signature-fake-news-bill-becomes-law/?utm_term=.4f48ad85e3f8.
“Yarovaya law obliges operators and Internet companies to store user correspondence.” July 1, 2018. TASS. http://tass.com/politics/1011585.