Most senior editorial staff members at one of Russia's leading independent newspapers have resigned in protest at the appointment of an editor-in-chief whom they've accused of censoring the paper and imposing rules that prevent publishing material uncomfortable for the Kremlin.
Vedomosti, one of Russia's best-known national papers, is one of the country's few major outlets not under Kremlin control. For the past three months, it's been embroiled in a high-profile media scandal after new owners brought in a chief editor from a magazine friendly to the authorities.
The staff have accused the new editor, Andrey Shmarov, of repeatedly violating Vedomosti's values of editorial independence. They said he's banned the paper from reporting negatively on President Vladimir Putin's moves to remain in power beyond his term limits. They've also accused Shmarov of forbidding them to publish polling data from an independent pollster that recently showed a decline in public trust for Putin.
The battle inside Vedomosti reached a climax on Monday, when all five of its deputy editors resigned, saying the newspaper could not maintain its standards of independence under Shmarov.
The resignations of the five editors -- Dmitry Simakov, Boris Safronov, Philip Sterkin, Kirill Kharatyan and Alexander Gubsky, all veterans of the paper -- first was reported by Vedomosti itself. The acting chief editor of Vedomosti's website, Alexander Chunova, and the economics correspondent, Anna Chervonnaya, also signed the letter announcing their resignations. Editors said journalists from the paper's consumer market section also were resigning, and that others may follow.
"One thing united us -- the burning desire to do quality journalism, not to bend to someone, to be governed exclusively by the interests of the reader," the resigning editors wrote. "We don't believe that these principles will be in demand as before in Vedomosti."
The mass resignations were seen in Russia's independent media as a death knell for the newspaper. The independent investigative website The Bell ran a headline: "The end of Vedomosti." Journalists at Vedomosti said they believed it marked the end of the paper as they knew it.
Vedomosti was founded in 1999 in a joint venture that included The Wall Street Journal and The Financial Times. Printed on similar salmon-colored paper as the FT, it was viewed as one of Russia's most authoritative and reliable news sources.
The paper has been sold a number of times since 2014, when the Kremlin banned foreign ownership. In March, Vedomosti was sold to two new investors, including a publisher behind Argumenti i Fakti, a magazine owned by the Moscow government.
The new owners appointed Shmarov, who previously ran a magazine called Expert. His arrival immediately worried staff, and over the months since they've accused him of softening headlines about state energy giant Rosneft and deleting a column critical of the company and its powerful chief, Igor Sechin.
Vedomosti's media editor, Ksenia Boletskaya, in April wrote Shmarov had banned staff from writing negatively about proposed constitutional amendments from Putin that will allow him to "reset" his presidential terms to zero. She wrote Shmarov had also prohibited publishing polling data from the Levada Center, Russia's only independent pollster, which in recent months has shown declines in Putin's approval rating.
Boletskaya wrote that Shmarov had told staff Putin's presidential administration didn't want to see Levada's surveys in Vedomosti. "And, basically, if the editorial staff wants to survive, it needs to obey the wishes of the administration," she paraphrased him as saying.
Monday's resignations were triggered by the announcement that Shmarov had been confirmed as editor-in-chief in a vote by the new board of directors of Business News Media, which owns Vedomosti.
Ahead of the vote to confirm Shmarov on Monday, Vedomosti's staff held its own vote for an alternative candidate, and 66 of the newspaper's 90 editorial staffers voted for Anfisa Voronina, the paper's editorial director of commercial projects and a former reporter. None voted for Shmarov.
Despite that, the board voted to appoint Shmarov. The casting vote was made by Ivan Yeremin, a Siberia media mogul and one of the paper's new majority owners.
"It seems to me," Voronina told ABC News on Tuesday, "if the owner is really interested in preserving Vedomosti as an institution, and the preservation of the editorial team, then at a minimum there would have been a question of some kind of dialogue with the editorial staff -- some kind of attempt to find a compromise."
Shmarov previously has denied violating Vedomosti's formal ethics code. He told Reuters in April he hadn't threatened to fire anyone and that his editorial decisions were his own -- not the result of instructions from anyone else in the nation's government or business structure.
The Vedomosti journalists have declined to say publicly who they believe is behind the takeover of the newspaper, and whether the Kremlin played a role. A joint investigation by Vedomosti and three other news sites, The Bell, Meduza and Forbes, last month reported that a senior official at state energy giant Rosneft played a role in Shmarov's appointment. The investigation also reported that Rosneft had acquired millions of dollars of debt held by Vedomosti's holding company. Sechin, Rosneft's chief, is a close lieutenant of Putin.
Dmitry Simakov, Vedomosti's managing editor and one of its founders, told Meduza after he resigned that someone wants to "make something servile under the respectable shop sign of Vedomosti."
Vedomosti is just the latest independent media outlet where staff members have voiced accusations of similar takeovers. In 2014, the popular news site Lenta.ru resigned en masse after the editor was pushed out amid a crackdown on independent media.
In 2016, three top editors were forced to resign at another of Russia's most influential independent media outlets, RBC, which had written about risky subjects such as Putin's daughters. They were replaced by new editors from a state news agency, who told RBC's reporters there were "solid double lines" that they should not cross.
"This is the road," one of the new editors, Elizaveta Golikova, said, according to a leaked recording of the remarks. "The information space, as you all know too well, is a very sensitive place."