It's no secret that the Russian government keeps state-controlled media on a tight leash. But a trove of text messages leaked recently suggest that the Kremlin's micromanagement of these outlets can extend even to decisions about which photos to run with a minor news story.
On the evening of April 16, 2014, the head of Russia's state-owned TASS news agency, Sergei Mikhailov, received a text message from a Kremlin official named Timur Prokopenko, according to an alleged transcript published by Shaltai Boltai, a shadowy anti-Kremlin group known for posting embarrassing leaks from Russian officials' electronic communications.
At issue, according to the transcript, was an apparently flattering photograph of opposition politician Aleksei Navalny and his wife, Yulia, published by TASS earlier that day. The photo evokes "Hollywood and success," Prokopenko, 34, is quoted as saying.
"Why is the site doing this?" he allegedly adds.
Six minutes later, Mikhailov purportedly responds: "We'll fix it. Thanks."
Prokopenko, a former TASS correspondent and pro-Kremlin youth leader, was appointed deputy head of the Kremlin's domestic politics department in 2012 under Vyacheslav Volodin, a powerful first deputy chief of staff to President Vladimir Putin.
The authenticity of the text messages, among some 40,000 purportedly obtained from Prokopenko’s mobile phone records and published by Shaltai Boltai on March 31, could not be immediately verified. Nonetheless, hours before Prokopenko's purported exchange with Mikhailov, TASS published a report about claims that Navalny may have violated election laws in his 2013 mayoral bid by failing to declare property allegedly owned by his wife.
A preview image for that report retrieved from Russia's leading Internet search engine, Yandex, features a TASS file photo of the smiling Navalnys sharing a moment of levity after a 2013 court hearing in a corruption case that the activist called politically motivated.
A preview image (second from left) from the Yandex search engine for a TASS report that shows Aleksei Navalny sharing a moment of levity with his wife. This report now has a more somber image.
The photograph currently included with the report is more somber, showing Navalny walking down a staircase as he shifts his eyes toward the camera above him.
No cached link to the TASS report for that day could be found. But the news portal Lenizdat.ru picked up the agency's story shortly after it was published and included the same TASS photograph that appears in the Yandex preview.
Navalny commented on his blog regarding the alleged exchange between Mikhailov and Prokopenko.
"Turns out that [presidential administration officials] spend 5 percent of the time on villainy and falsifications, and 95 percent, pardon me, on crap," he wrote.
Neither Prokopenko nor Mikhailov have publicly addressed their alleged exchange, and TASS's press office did not respond to an emailed request for comment in time for publication.
Navalny, 38, is serving suspended sentences on two financial-crimes convictions he and supporters say are part of a Kremlin-directed campaign of punishment for his political opposition and anticorruption crusade.
He has spearheaded investigations alleging corruption among allies of Putin and emerged from a wave of antigovernment protests in 2011-2012 as Russia's most prominent opposition leader.
Navalny’s strong showing against the Kremlin's Moscow mayoral candidate, Sergei Sobyanin, in 2013 hinted at weaknesses in the country's tightly controlled political system.
Navalny's wife and young children have figured prominently in his political career, regularly appearing with him in public and in his campaign materials. Putin, meanwhile, has aggressively shielded his two daughters from the public and has been divorced since 2013.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on April 1 that the presidential administration does not pay attention to the output of groups like Shaltai Boltai and that he doesn't think "many people read those publications."
Nikolai Molibog, an executive with the independent news agency RBC, has confirmed that text messages between him and Prokopenko published by Shaltai Boltai were authentic.
Moscow-based journalist Yekaterina Vinokurova, however, wrote on Twitter that "a portion" of the text messages she purportedly exchanged with Prokopenko were "doctored."
-- Carl Schreck