Former Russian oil tycoon and Kremlin foe Mikhail Khodorkovsky is halting funding for an investigative news site whose journalists were killed last month in the Central African Republic (CAR) while reporting on Russian private military contractors there.
Khodorkovsky made the announcement on August 29, a month after three journalists from the Investigation Control Center (TsUR), an online news organization he funded, were shot dead in murky circumstances in the CAR.
The journalists -- Orkhan Dzhemal, Aleksandr Rastorguyev, and Kirill Radchenko -- were in the country to make a documentary film about the possible activities there of a shadowy Russian paramilitary group known as Vagner.
Vagner is reportedly funded by Kremlin-connected businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin and its mercenaries have carried out clandestine combat missions in eastern Ukraine, Syria, and elsewhere.
Both CAR authorities and Moscow have said the journalists were killed in a robbery, though Khodorkovsky's inquiry has said that claim "does not stand up to scrutiny."
Khodorkovsky said on August 29 that he had decided to halt funding for TsUR due to what he called poor organization of the journalists' trip to the CAR.
He specifically cited their reliance on a mysterious local fixer known to the TsUR team only as "Martin," who promised to help organize transport and accommodations for the journalists in the CAR.
"The responsibility for this mistake and for the quality of preparations in general lies partially with the group of TsUR producers," Khodorkovsky wrote. "Even partial responsibility is too much in such a case."
The announcement followed media reports in recent days publishing transcripts of communications between the journalists and their producers, as well as messages between Martin and TsUR, which believed the fixer was working for the UN mission in the CAR.
One of the reports was published by the Federal News Agency (FAN), which has also been linked to Prigozhin and suggested that the security measures taken by the journalists in the CAR were inadequate.
A journalist with FAN, Kirill Romanovsky, had put TsUR in contact with Martin.
Henri Depele, the mayor of the town of Sibut, around 200 kilometers northeast of the CAR's capital, Bangui, said earlier that the journalists were ambushed by gunmen late on July 30 and "died instantly." Their driver survived the attack.
Khodorkovsky said that a separate investigative team he is backing is currently in the CAR and that "we have reason to believe that the group [of journalists] were the victims of a planned operation."
He said that because he financed the project, he bears some of the responsibility for the deaths and that he would assist the journalists' relatives financially.
The former editor in chief of TsUR, Andrei Konyakhin, said on Facebook late on August 29 that the investigative project "is no more."
Konyakhin vowed to continue his investigation into the journalists’ killings and not to rest "until I find all those responsible."
"As an independent journalist now, I will search for these brutes," he wrote.