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An independent newspaper in Russia has been criticized by government supporters after it reported on the business interests of President Vladimir Putin's family and friends. The Kremlin insists it's not applying pressure the media. But some journalists say they don't know how far they can go without risking reprisals from the government. NPR's Corey Flintoff reports from Moscow.
COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: The man at the center of this story is the billionaire Russian businessman Mikhail Prokhorov. He's best known in the United States as the owner of the Brooklyn Nets basketball team. He has a lot of holdings in Russia, too. One of the best known is a business media group called RBC, which owns a TV channel and a newspaper.
MARIA LIPMAN: It's an outlet that publishes good analysis and, most importantly, investigations. It has done investigative reporting in the past couple of years, some of it on very sensitive subjects.
FLINTOFF: That's Maria Lipman, an independent political analyst who's based in Moscow. One of those sensitive subjects was a report of the Panama Papers and what they revealed about the offshore business interests of friends of President Putin. That report drew a denunciation from a pro-Kremlin broadcaster who has one of the most-watched political shows on Russian TV.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "VESTI NEDELI")
DMITRY KISELYOV: President Putin...
FLINTOFF: Dmitry Kiselyov maintains that the Panama Papers, those leaked documents from a Panamanian law firm, are part of an American plot to discredit legitimate Russian businessmen.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "VESTI NEDELI")
KISELYOV: (Speaking Russian).
FLINTOFF: Kiselyov held up a copy of the RBC newspaper and said it was helping the Americans in their plot to associate offshore tax evasion and money laundering with President Putin.
Maria Lipman says accusations of disloyalty have become a common weapon against any media that question the government.
LIPMAN: The idea being that only unpatriotic forces, acting in the interests of the West, can criticize the Russian government. A patriot would not.
FLINTOFF: After the criticism of RBC's Panama Papers reporting, the company announced that the editor-in-chief, Elizaveta Osetinskaya, would be taking a four-month leave of absence. Osetinskaya declined NPR's request for comments.
RBC isn't the only independent news outlet that's feeling the pressure. Mikhail Zygar is the former editor of the independent channel TV Rain. He says one of the biggest problems facing independent journalists is uncertainly about what they can and cannot report.
MIKHAIL ZYGAR: No one really knows what is allowed and what is not. No one really understands which topics could be covered and which topics are too delicate.
FLINTOFF: Despite that, Zygar says there are still independent media outlets doing principled journalism.
Maria Lipman says the desire to avoid certain topics can be a temptation for media owners.
LIPMAN: This naturally leads to self-censorship. And then it's a degree of how far you go, and how do you balance the desire to act according to journalistic principles and standards, and common sense.
FLINTOFF: Earlier this month, federal police raided the offices of several of Mikhail Prokhorov's companies as part of what may have been an investigation into tax evasion. Prokhorov's office is denying rumors that he has plans to sell RBC. But some commentators are predicting that it will end up in the hands of an owner who's more friendly to the Kremlin.
Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Moscow.
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