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Besieged and Bickering, Russian Online Portal Begins Anew

On November 29, 2012 Aksana Panova, editor-in-chief of the embattled Yekaterinburg internet news agency URA.ru [ru] posted a note in her Facebook saying her last goodbyes [ru] on behalf of the website:

Это наш последний текст. Он стоял на сайте. Но сайт уже заблокировали. Поэтому публикую здесь. Вот и все. [...] Король умер, да здравствует король. Сегодня мы покидаем «URA.Ru», чтобы на следующей неделе запустить новый проект – интернет-газету «Znak.Com».[...] Что касается судьбы самого «URA.Ru» – она нам неизвестна.

This is our last story. It used to be up on the website. But the website is already blocked. So I publish it here. That's all folks. [...] The king is dead, long live the king. Today we are leaving “URA.ru”, and next week we will launch a new project – an internet newspaper “Znak.Com”. [...] As to the fate of “URA.ru” itself – it is unknown to us.

Panova and URA.ru has been under pressure for months, presumably as punishment for criticism of regional government officials. In September local police raided [GV] the newspaper offices. Two weeks ago the website experienced an attempted domain hijacking [GV]. Panova herself is under investigation for alleged extortion (she is accused of demanding money to stop negative coverage.) The last straw was apparently a URA.ru shareholder meeting scheduled for November 30, where the majority shareholders (who hold 51% of the shares) were expected to ask for Panova's resignation.

URA.ru front page. December 5, 2012. Screenshot

Rather than wait for this to happen, Panova and her editorial team decided to leave preemptively. In a followup note she wrote [ru]:

Буквально через несколько минут, в 10.30, начнется совет директоров ООО “Ура.ру”, который снимет с меня полномочия директора и шеф-редактора URA.Ru. Место займет Михаил Вьюгин. Мой друг. Он остается один.

In just a few minutes, at 10:30, the OOO “Ura.ru” board of directors will begin its meeting, where it will fire me from the positions of director and editor-in-chief of URA.Ru. Mikhail Viugin will take my place. He is my friend. He remains alone.

Earlier Panova wrote the following [ru] of Viugin:

Это единственный человек из 30 сотрудников агентства, который по личным причинам принял решение остаться.

This is the only person out of the 30 employees of the agency, that for personal reasons decided to stay.

The claim that Viugin is the only person to stay is odd, since there are articles currently being published on URA.ru which are authored by journalists who have previously contributed to the website (for example Sergey Leonov [ru]). Nevertheless, Panova  does not seem to be upset with Viugin, having gifted him with the 49% of company shares she still controls.

Viugin, on the other hand, has a bone to pick with Panova. On November 29 he blogged on his Facebook, accusing Panova [ru] of reneging on promises of equal partnership and sacrificing the company to corporate infighting:

«Ты – моя опора, – сказала мне ты. – Официально мы не делим ООО пополам, но знай – мы равные партнеры». Работать с тобой – удовольствие и счастье. Но только до тех пор, пока ты, выбирая между дружбой и деньгами, не выбрала деньги, и предала.

“You are my buttress,” you told me. “Officially we don't divide the OOO in half, but know – we are equal partners.” Working with you is joyful and happy. But only until the time when you, choosing between friendship and money, chose money and betrayed.

Viugin seems to imply that Panova did not share with him the money she received from the sale of 51% of the company shares (the sale which ironically ended up forcing Panova out of the driver's seat). In the same blog he accused of Panova of manipulating her staff to follow her in resigning from the agency:

я смотрю, что ты делаешь с ребятами, и вижу каждую манипуляцию. Ты как паучиха плетешь паутину лжи, а ребята в ней вязнут.

I watch what you are doing with the guys, I see every manipulation. You are like a spider spinning a web of lies, and the guys are stuck in it.

Panova did not respond to Viugin's accusations, insinuating that he had no choice but to write what he did.

Brand new Znak.com. December 5, 2012. Screenshot

In the meantime, Panova's team has, as promised, launched a new website Znak.com, self-described as [ru]:

интернет-газета, рассказывающая о жизни Урала и всей России, не боящаяся острых тем, не имеющая высокопоставленных цензоров

[an] internet-newspaper about the life of the Urals and all of Russia, unafraid of controversial issues, without high-placed censors

The website is up and running with columns from Oleg Kashin [ru] (recently fired from Kommersant) and Gleb Pavlovsky [ru]. As such, it appears that Znak is aiming for a less regional approach and wider audience. Panova likened [ru] the launch itself to giving birth:

Чувствую себя мамой новорожденного. Вот в прямом смысле. Не спишь, не ешь, никуда от кроватки.

I feel like the mother of a newborn. Literally. No time to sleep or eat, no leaving the crib.

With the attack on URA.ru effectively over, Yekaterinburg based political scientist Konstantin Kiselev summed up the fall-out [ru]:

лизать власть (и областную, и федеральную) в итоге скандала, развязанного силовиками и властью против УРА.ру, в области стало еще более не модно.

as a result of the scandal launched by the siloviki and the government against URA.ru, to be a lickspittle to the powers that be (both regional and federal) has become even less hip in our region.

Hopefully Kiselev is right, and in the long run this unfortunate incident will lead to more freedom of the press, not less.

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