MOSCOW -- Reporters Without Borders (RSF) says it is "dismayed" by the turmoil at the prominent Russian newspaper Kommersant, calling it a "terrible blow to what is left of journalistic independence" in the country.
The Paris-based media freedom watchdog issued a statement on May 21, after two journalists at the business daily were fired over an article about a staunch Kremlin ally.
Eleven of their colleagues resigned in protest, and more than 180 others issued a joint letter saying that the newspaper's shareholders were "destroying one of Russia's best media outlets" for "short-term political gains."
Kommersant's deputy editor in chief, Renata Yambayeva, said that the decision to fire a deputy chief editor of the newspaper's political unit, Maksim Ivanov, and special correspondent Ivan Safronov, was made by the newspaper's owner, Kremlin-friendly oligarch Alisher Usmanov.
A spokesperson for Usmanov said that the billionaire had nothing to do with the dismissals and claimed he never interferes in the newspaper's editorial decisions.
But RSF said that the information it had gathered “confirms that Ivanov and Safronov were fired as a result of pressure from Usmanov, who was critical, inter alia, of the fact that the journalists did not name their sources" for their article about the possible demotion of Federation Council chairwoman Valentina Matviyenko.
"Respect for the confidentiality of journalists' sources is an essential principle for which there is provision in Russian law," the watchdog said.
The Russian Journalists and Media Workers Union condemned what it called "brutal interference by shareholders in editorial policy" and said that "shareholder meddling in editorial policy violates the constitutional right to free speech."
The story about Matviyenko, a former St. Petersburg governor who has headed the upper house of Russia's parliament since 2011, was published on April 17.
It cited sources close to the government as saying that spy chief Sergei Naryshkin, head of the External Intelligence Service, might replace Matviyenko in May and that she might be moved to a position in the state Pension Fund.
Russia ranks 149th out of 180 countries listed on RSF’s World Press Freedom Index.
In March, Kommersant journalist Maria Karpenko said she was fired over her reports on acting St. Petersburg Governor Aleksandr Beglov's election campaign.