After Hailing Editor’s Nobel Prize, Kremlin Extends Media Crackdown
(Bloomberg) -- While the Kremlin quickly congratulated Russian journalist Dmitry Muratov for winning the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday, Russia‘s relentless crackdown on independent media shows no sign of letting up.
A disclosure in the Pandora Papers leak of documents this week that an alleged former lover of President Vladimir Putin acquired a 3.6-million-euro ($4.2 million) apartment in Monaco has added fuel to a belief within the Kremlin that there’s a Western campaign to tarnish his image, said two people close to the government. That’s likely to intensify pressure on independent reporting outlets.
“This was a direct attack on Putin,” said Alexander Ionov, a pro-Kremlin campaigner who’s successfully pressed authorities to slap draconian restrictions on media outlets critical of the president. “We’re going to wage a relentless battle with them and the organizations that sponsor them from the U.S. and U.K.”
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov dismissed the claims in the Pandora Papers on Monday, telling reporters “it’s unclear how you can trust this information.” While Russia’s always been a harsh environment for journalists critical of the authorities, pressure on independent media spiked this year after the imprisonment of Alexey Navalny, Putin’s most outspoken critic.
Shortly after his arrest in January, Navalny appeared in a YouTube video that’s received more than 119 million views and alleged Putin owns a giant $1.3 billion Black Sea palace. The Russian leader denies links to the property. Prosecutors later outlawed Navalny’s nationwide network of activists as “extremist.”
The Pandora Papers “reinforce the perception that Putin presides over a corrupt system that enriches him and members of his circle, while the country stagnates,” said Daniel Fried, a former senior U.S. State Department official in charge of sanctions policy.
Several media outlets have been branded “foreign agents” under a Russian law that forces them to post the label on all news reports and meet strict financial disclosure rules or face prosecution. The Meduza news site was named in April, followed by the VTimes outlet in May, which shut down rather than risk jail, and the Dozhd TV channel in August.
A now-banned investigative website, Proekt, first alleged in November that Putin has a daughter by the St. Petersburg woman identified in the Pandora Papers, and claimed that his former lover had $100 million in assets. Putin’s spokesman dismissed the claims as “tabloid fodder.” In July, prosecutors named Proekt an “undesirable” organization and its journalists were listed as “foreign agents.”
The Russian partner on the Pandora Papers project with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists was Vazhniye Istorii, or Important Stories, which was declared a “foreign agent” in August.
Russian authorities may soon outlaw Vazhniye Istorii, Ionov said.
Proekt’s editor-in-chief, Roman Badanin, who’s now in the U.S. and has set up a new media outlet, called accusations he’s a Western agent “classical Soviet-style propaganda that was taught to Putin and his associates at KGB school.”
Roman Anin, Vazhniye Istorii’s editor-in-chief, has vowed to pursue his work. “Putin and his entourage sincerely believe that all independent investigative journalists work for” Western intelligence services, he said.
Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova last month hit out at media “pseudo-investigations,” alleging they’re directed by spy agencies “of the countries that see Russia as their enemy.”
Muratov, the Nobel laureate, is editor-in-chief of the investigative Novaya Gazeta newspaper he co-founded in 1993 with backing from former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. He dedicated the award to four of his journalists who he sasid had been killed “defending people’s right to freedom of speech,” as well as a lawyer and rights activist who’d worked with them.
“Since they are not with us,” he said, the Nobel Committee “apparently decided that I should tell everyone that.”
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