After hailing Russian editor's Nobel Peace Prize, Kremlin extends media crackdown

Russian journalist Dmitry Muratov had won the Nobel Peace Prize on Oct 8.
Russian journalist Dmitry Muratov had won the Nobel Peace Prize on Oct 8.PHOTO: REUTERS

MOSCOW (BLOOMBERG) - While the Kremlin quickly congratulated Russian journalist Dmitry Muratov for winning the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday (Oct 8), 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 (S$5.6 million) apartment in Monaco has added fuel to a belief within the Kremlin that there is a Western campaign to tarnish his image, said two sources close to the government. That is likely to intensify pressure on independent reporting outlets.

"This was a direct attack on Putin," said Mr Alexander Ionov, a pro-Kremlin campaigner who has successfully pressed the authorities to slap draconian restrictions on media outlets critical of the president. "We're going to wage a relentless battle with them and the organisations that sponsor them from the US and UK."

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 has always been a harsh environment for journalists critical of the authorities, pressure on independent media spiked this year after the imprisonment of Alexey Navalny, Mr Putin's most outspoken critic.

Shortly after his arrest in January, Navalny appeared in a YouTube video that hasreceived more than 119 million views and alleged Mr Putin owns a giant US$1.3 billion (S$1.76 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 Mr Putin presides over a corrupt system that enriches him and members of his circle, while the country stagnates," said Mr Daniel Fried, a former senior US 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.

Russia labelled nine more individual journalists as "foreign agents" on Friday, bringing the total to nearly 50 since July.

Police have also raided the homes of investigative reporters in recent months amid official pressure that's forced many to flee the country.

A now-banned investigative website, Proekt, first alleged in November that Mr Putin has a daughter by the St Petersburg woman identified in the Pandora Papers, and claimed that his former lover had US$100 million in assets.

Mr Putin's spokesman dismissed the claims as "tabloid fodder".

In July, prosecutors named Proekt an "undesirable" organisation 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 also declared a "foreign agent" in August.

The Russian authorities may soon outlaw Vazhniye Istorii, Mr Ionov said.

Proekt's editor-in-chief, Mr Roman Badanin, who is now in the United States 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".

Mr 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 spokesman 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".

Mr 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 said 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".