UGLEGORSK, Russia -- Events moved quickly at the offices of the municipal newspaper in this Sakhalin Island port town of some 10,000 people on July 14.
About 10 a.m., two deputy directors of the Eastern Mining Company (VGK), Aleksandr Bosoi and Andrei Motovilov, showed up at the office of newspaper Editor in Chief Zinaida Makarova to discuss "the direction" of the paper's coverage of the company.
According to audio of the tense confrontation posted on the newspaper's Telegram channel the same day, Makarova challenged the men to find any errors in the paper's journalism, pledged to continue telling "the truth" to local residents, and urged VGK to "mine coal and not interfere" in other areas of the life of the region.
Meanwhile, other staffers were preparing the latest issue of the weekly Uglegorskiye Novosti featuring a front-page feature on an ecological crisis caused when a coal dump at the firm's open-pit mine collapsed into and blocked the Zhyoltaya River.
WATCH footage of the aftermath of the accident
At 4 p.m. the same day, Makarova was summoned to the mayor's office, where she was handed formal notice that she had been fired.
"Literally five or seven minutes after [Makarova] left for the mayor's office, about 10 men entered the editorial office," journalist Alina Goloskok, who wrote the feature on the accident, told RFE/RL. "Three of them went straight into the accounting office and began copying files from the computers. The others took up positions in the corridor. They acted like they owned the place."
According to Goloskok, one of the men told staff that "Makarova is no longer your boss."
"We were completely shocked since we were just doing what we always do, putting together the latest edition," she recalled. "And suddenly this takeover."
When Makarova returned to the office, the electricity had been turned off.
"The office is on the first floor of a five-story residential building," she said. "The power was only off on our floor. Electricians said the cable was severed."
Nonetheless, power was briefly restored just as Uglegorsk Mayor Sergei Doroshchuk appeared.
"He demanded that everyone leave," Makarova recalled. "We said that we needed to put out the paper, but he insisted that we leave. Then the power went out again."
A repair crew did not show up until July 16. As of July 19, the power was still out. As of July 21, the newspaper's website was unavailable, and no issues have been published.
A press release from Doroshchuk's office on July 15 said Makarova had been dismissed "after the discovery of financial violations."
"In order to secure the office space and property for the newly appointed director, the premises were placed under guard," the statement added.
"When he came to order us home, we asked Doroshchuk why Makarova had been fired," Goloskok said. "We didn't get a coherent answer. And then we asked why the electricity had been turned off if it was just a matter of changing the management. But there was no need to guess the reason -- it was about my article about the coal-dump collapse that was being prepared for publication. As far as I know, there has never been an emergency situation as bad as this in Uglegorsk."
VGK was formed in 2013 with initial capital of 10,000 rubles ($300). It is 99 percent owned by a Cyprus-registered holding called Altraso Venchurz Ltd. Although Altraso's ownership is unclear, it is believed to be controlled by businessman Oleg Misevra, who runs the company and is listed as its "founder and coproprietor," although formally he holds only a 0.55 percent stake. VGK's two major assets are the Solntsevsky coal mine and the Sakhalin Island port of Shakhtyorsk -- both in the Uglegorsk district.
It is the 26th-largest coal firm in Russia, as of 2016, and accounts for about 70 percent of the coal produced on Sakhalin. Virtually all of its production is exported through the Shaktyorsk port. In 2019, it reported 46 billion rubles ($618 million) in profits and paid 192 million ($2.6 million) in taxes. Its tax burden is substantially reduced because Uglegorsk is a free-trade zone.
Directly employing more than 1,000 people, VGK is the region's major employer. Various local construction, transportation, food-production, and other firms, although formally independent, are connected with VGK.
Locals consider Misevra the unofficial head of the region. In 2019, he was named Russia's "exporter of the year."
"I believe the VGK management, having learned about the article we were going to publish, ordered Doroshchuk to prevent its appearance -- both in print and on television. And so I was fired," Makarova said.
VGK did not respond to repeated requests from RFE/RL for comment. It has not issued any public statements about the newspaper's situation.
Throughout her eight years running the newspaper, Makarova has "constantly felt the unspoken presence" of Misevra, she said.
"Mayor Doroshchuk told me directly that he had no problem with me but that he has to do what Misevra told him," Makarova said. "I heard that all the time. Either Doroshchuk was proposing closing the newspaper because 'no one reads it' or he was saying the printing press needed to be closed down to save money or that there was no need for a television channel. 'Misevra says it is better to develop YouTube,' he'd say."
Locals in Uglegorsk -- the name means 'Coal Mountain' in Russian -- have been complaining about VGK polluting local waterways for many years now. In addition, the trucks from the mine pass directly through Uglegorsk on their way to the port and a dark cloud of coal dust regularly engulfs the entire area. Residents regularly recorded videos on the topic for President Vladimir Putin's annual Direct Line call-in show, but their appeals were never broadcast, although Uglegorskiye Novosti reported on them locally.
On July 9, Uglegorskiye Novosti published a letter from local resident Sergei Bondaryov warning that coal-dump was in a critical state. The next day, it suffered two major collapses, dumping tons of rock and debris into the Yellow River channel.
"There are houses in that area, families live there," Bondaryov told RFE/RL. "I immediately began calling the Emergency Situations Ministry, the forestry service, and Uglegorskiye Novosti, because they had to report what was going on. The situation could not remain as it was -- people had to know about it and act. I reported about the danger to everyone I could think of. Everyone knew -- right up to the governor's office…. Everyone knew but no one did anything."
A press statement from the office of the governor of Sakhalin Island on July 18 said the regional administration was in charge of "liquidating the consequences of the collapse in the Uglegorsk region."
It quoted Solntsevsky mine Deputy Director Aleksei Sharabarin as saying the company was building an emergency canal for the river around the site of the collapse and that construction was "70 percent complete." He promised to begin releasing the damned-up water as early as July 21.
Makarova and her team at Uglegorskiye Novosti have seen a wave of support since the story about her dismissal broke. The Union of Journalists has asked the Investigative Committee to look into the legality of Doroshchuk's actions, while about 1,200 people have signed an online petition calling for the mayor's resignation.
"What has happened to Uglegorskiye Novosti is part of our overall misfortune," said former Sakhalin State University journalism lecturer Irina Kudina.
"I can't avoid using the word 'politics,'” she said. “It is the desire to create a false bubble of positive news. And it is the attitude of the region's 'master' to the 'little people.'… There was nothing in the article that was not a fact. Did the coal-dump collapse into the river? Yes. There are photographs. Are people worried? Yes. The journalists did their job -- they described what was happening."
The staff of Uglegorskiye Novosti continue reporting on events through the paper's Telegram channel.
"I've never had a complaint about my editorial policies in eight years," Makarova said. "The people want to hear the truth. Not the mayor's truth, but the truth about the mayor and about what is happening in this region."