Russian President Vladimir Putin has secretly showered awards and medals on more than 300 media workers for their "objective" coverage of events in Crimea.
"Vedomosti," one of the few relatively independent newspapers left in Russia, broke the news in a May 5 report
Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov confirmed the decision to "The Moscow Times," adding, however, that the Kremlin did "not plan to add any details about it."
Putin quietly signed the decree on April 22, one month after formally sealing the internationally unrecognized annexation of Crimea.
Quoting a source familiar with the document, "Vedomosti" said the journalists were honored for their "high-level professionalism" and "objective coverage of events in Crimea" as Russian forces took control of the Ukrainian peninsula.
As the newspaper noted, the decree does not appear on the list of decisions
published on the presidential website.
Putin's press service said this means the document is "not accessible to the public."
Only one recipient interviewed by "Vedomosti," deputy director of the RTRS state broadcasting company Viktor Pinchuk, admitted being aware of the awards.
News of the awards comes as state-run Russian media are under fire for what critics denounce as an aggressive disinformation campaign to discredit prodemocracy protests in Ukraine and justify Moscow's backing of separatist rebels in the country.
The move has sparked dismay on the Russian Internet, where a Twitter hashtag --#орденвстудию
, roughly translated as "send that studio a medal" -- has already been created to pan the awards.
According to "Vedomosti," accolades went to about 100 employees from the All-Russia State Television and Radio Broadcasting Company, dozens from the NTV, RT, and Life News television channels, and more than 60 from state-run Channel One.
In March, Channel One was caught airing footage of vehicles queuing up at Ukraine's border with Poland to illustrate a report -- widely dismissed as false -- on Russian-speaking Ukrainians allegedly fleeing to Russia en masse.
WATCH: Russian State TV Anchor: 'Propaganda Is Journalism'
RT, too, has been accused of spinning its own tale about Ukraine, a tale populated by bloodthirsty Ukrainian nationalists and neo-Nazis bent on victimizing the nation's Russian-speaking populations.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry last month branded the English-language channel a "propaganda bullhorn" and accused it of promoting "Putin's fantasy about what is playing out on the ground" in Ukraine.
RT's chief editor, Margarita Simonyan, was among those awarded the prestigious For Services to the Fatherland award for their coverage of Crimea.
Talk-show host Arkady Mamontov, NTV general director Vladimir Kulistikov, and prominent television host Vladimir Solovyov were also singled out for their work.
In total, about 90 reporters were honored.
The list of awardees does not include any employees of liberal media outlets.
The Kremlin, however, chose to honor the head of the Federal Mass Media Inspection Service, Aleksander Zharov, whose organization recently blocked access to several popular opposition blogs and the opposition-leaning news website Grani.ru.
The move is unprecedented in its scale.
In January 2009, then-President Dmitry Medvedev handed out awards to just 11 journalists for their coverage of the 2008 war between Russia and Georgia over South Ossetia.
And unlike Putin, Medvedev made the decision public.
In additional to their symbolic value, the awards come with a number of perks.
Holders of the For Services to the Fatherland awards are eligible for a generous monthly allowance. All recipients of state awards can apply for the status of labor veterans, with all the benefits and privileges it entails.
-- Claiire Bigg