Following the dismissal of RBC chief editors, Russia's critical media threatens to grow even smaller. The media group had a high profile, not least due to its research on the Panama Papers.
Politics or business? That's usually the most-debated issue when there's a change at the top of anyof Russia's influential media. The case of RBC media holding is no exception. For days, people have wondered why three top journalists had to leave.
The case is causing so much unease because RBC is one of the last major and relatively independent media groups in a country where the state almost totally dominates the information industry.
In mid-May, Director General Nikolai Molybog announced RBC editor in chief Yelizaveta Osetinskaya as well as the chief editors of the group's press agency and newspaper were leaving. The reason given was that there was no agreement on the group's future development.
Political reasons suspected
Alexey Volin, deputy head of theTelecommunications Ministry, chalks up the changeover to economic reasons. There was absolutely no pressure from the government, says Dmitry Peskov, the Russian President's press spokesman.
Initially, Osetinskaya remained silent. In the meantime, however, the ex-chief editor has indicated possible political grounds. There was a lot of pressure on the group because of its reports on the so-called Panama Papers, she told the Financial Times. The leaks included offshore deals made by Sergei Roldugin, a cellist and close friend of President Vladimir Putin.
However, a RBC report about an oyster farm near a mansion dubbed "Putin's Palace" in Gelendzhik on the Black Sea was the "straw that broke the camel's back", according to the Reuters news agency.
Many reporters, including Pavel Gusev, the head of the Moscow Journalists' Union, suspect a political background where RBC is concerned. Human Rights Council chairman Michail Fedotov agrees it's hard to believe the dismissals were motivated by economic developments.
RBC owner under pressure
RBC (RosBusinessConsulting) was founded in 1993 with a focus on economics, and is regarded as a market leader. According to RBC data, the group's TV news channel reaches more than 20 million viewers every month. RBC is a DW partner. Zhanna Nemtsova, the daughter of the murdered Russian opposition politician who now works as an anchorwoman on DW's Russia desk, worked for RBC in the past.
Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, the 2012 presidential candidate whose liberal rhetoric netted him millions of votes, acquired the group in 2010. These past weeks, his firms have been under pressure, including searches on suspicion of tax evasion. Observers speculated the Kremlin might be trying to force the businessman to sell RBC.
The media holding's research has garnered quite some attention, including recent reports on the cost of Russia's mission in Syria.
"If you take into account RBC's scope and the fact that their reports are often quoted by other media and social networks, the group appears to have been a nuisance to the antagonists of their research, mainly people near Vladimir Putin," Moscow journalist and blogger Alexander Plushev told DW.
What happened to the critics?
If RBC changes its policies and tones down its criticism of the Kremlin, it wouldn't be the first such case. The most prominent example goes back to 2001, when state energy giant Gazprom took over NTW, a popular and influential TV channel.
It appears Lenta.ru, Russia's leading private online newspaper, also came under fire. Editor in chief Galina Timtchenko was dismissed in March 2014 in the wake of a warning targeting an interview with a leader of Ukraine's Prawy Sektor far-right movement. Many observers saw Timtshenko's dismissal as a "clear political decision". In solidarity, dozens of reporters left the paper.
Any critical media left?
ln Russia, there aren't that many liberal media outlets critical of the government in the first place, but their number is dwindling fast. Left are the Novaya Gazeta paper and small online portals, like Snob.ru.
Only two other media organizations in Russia have a scope and political influence like RBC: the Echo of Moscow radio station and the private Dozhd TV channel.
Gazprom owns the former, and Dozhd, a DW partner, faced a shut-down in 2014 when Russian cable providers dropped the media outlet. The project has tried to stay alive as pay TV. Last year, Dozhd chief editor Mikhail Zygar announced his withdrawal from the station, claiming a need to turn to other projects. Rumor has it, however, that Zygar was forced to leave because of his book "Endgame - the metamorphosis of Vladimir Putin", which takes a critical look at the Kremlin.