Reporters Without Borders is shocked by Galina Timchenko (Галина Тимченко)'s sudden dismissal as editor of the independent news website Lenta.ru yesterday, shortly after it got a warning from the Russian communications regulatory agency Roskomnadzor for interviewing a Ukrainian ultra-nationalist leader. She has been replaced by Alexei Goreslavsky (Алексей Гореславский), a journalist widely regarded as pro-Kremlin.
"Lenta.ru has been one of the few sources of independent news coverage in an ocean of propaganda, and even more so since the start of the Ukrainian crisis," said Johann Bihr, the head of the Reporters Without Borders Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk.
"Timchenko embodied the efforts of an entire team of journalists who developed Lenta.ru into a leading modern news site while maintaining complete editorial independence. Given the site's influence and the recognition it has received, her dismissal sends a very scary signal and deals a major blow to independent journalism in Russia."
With an average of 12 million unique visitors a month, Lenta.ru is Russia's most widely read news website and 16th most visited online resource, just behind search engines and social networks. It has done much in recent years to diversify its content and format, with briefs, video reports, long analyses and columns by well-known writers.
The site announced yesterday that Alexander Mamut, the owner of Lentu.ru's parent company, Afisha-Rambler-SUP, had appointed Goreslavsky, until then the parent company's deputy director-general of external communications, to replace Timchenko, who had worked for Lenta.ru since its creation in 1999 and had been editor-in-chief since 2004.
A former manager of the Agency One public relations company and former editor of the Vzgliad website and Vslukh o magazine, Goreslavsky is widely seen as a Kremlin supporter. According to the independent TV station Dozhd, Timchenko's removal was to have been expected ever since Afisha-Rambler-SUP's creation as a large media holding company in the spring of 2013, which was accompanied by the departure of the leading intermediary between the site's owners and the government.
Although no official explanation has been given for Timchenko's dismissal, it is hard not to link it to the warning that Lenta.ru received earlier in the day from the communications regulatory agency Roskomnadzor over an interview with Andrei Tarasenko of the Ukrainian ultra-nationalist group Pravy Sektor by Ilya Azar, a reporter that Lenta.ru sent to Kiev.
Roskomnadzor said the interview and the content of a link in the interview "contain statements inciting hatred" and contravening the law on extremism. Condemnation of Pravy Sektor has featured prominently in Russian government statements about Ukraine ever since President Viktor Yanukovych's ouster. The Kremlin's propaganda has played up this far-right group's activities and statements in order to support its portrayal of events in Kiev as a "fascist coup" and to tarnish the new Ukrainian government.
"Holding journalists responsible for the statements of the people they interview is unacceptable," Bihr added. "Whether you approve of them or not, Ukraine's ultra-nationalists have to be interviewed at a time when their actions are being widely reported and commented on. At no point in the interview did Azar show any sympathy for Tarasenko. Roskmonadzor's warning seems to have been designed to provide the ideal pretext and speaks volumes about the government's determination to control coverage of the Ukrainian crisis."
The website's staff lost no time expressing its mistrust of the new management. An open letter to readers currently signed by 84 staff members said: "We think this appointment constitutes direct pressure on the staff of Lenta.ru. The dismissal of an independent editor-in-chief and her replacement by a henchman, one who comes directly from offices in the Kremlin, is a clear violation of the media law, which says that censorship is unacceptable."
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