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Yet another critical media outlet faces problems

February 24, 2012, 12:41 UTC+3 Alexandrova Lyudmila

Yet another Russian media outlet known for its criticism of authorities faced problems, which observers described as pressure on independent media, on the eve of the presidential election. The Novaya Gazeta daily owned by millionaire Alexander Lebedev remained without the main source of financing after the Central Bank launched an inspection of the National Reserve Bank (NRB) of Lebedev, who is the main stockholder and publisher of the Novaya Gazeta.

The daily said it might even sell its shares, but so far the staff agreed to work for a month without payment. Lebedev said he will not let the newspaper down and will find a new source of financing shortly.

The journalists of the newspaper hold a controlling stake in the outlet. Lebedev holds 39 percent and the former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev - 10 percent. In 2010 Lebedev bought two British newspapers – The Independent and the Evening Standard. His National Reserve Bank also owns 15% of the biggest Russian Aeroflot airline.

“If over a hundred inspectors are conducting a check in the NRB there is no possibility to earn money for Novaya Gazeta,” Lebedev told adding the bank “is currently loss-making and paralyzed by the checks of the Central Bank, courts and law enforcers.” His British newspapers are also likely to face financial problems.

“The three newspapers – The Independent (daily circulation 180 000), Novaya Gazeta (220 000), and The Evening Standard (800 000) – are likely to have personnel cuts,” Lebedev said adding the NRB may also halve the workforce.

The check of the bank began on January 30 and Russian media said it followed Lebedev’s intention to make opposition leader Alexei Navalny an independent director in Aeroflot board. Police searches of the bank immediately followed.

“If someone wants to leave me without money for Novaya Gazeta he should do exactly what the Central Bank is doing,” Lebedev said adding the check is politically motivated. “Never in its history has the Central Bank engaged 130 inspectors in one check,” he said.

The Central Bank said it was a standard check, however, later it became known that officers of the Federal Security Service were checking the Moscow headquarters of the NRB.

A law enforcement source told Vedomosti daily the checks were related to stabilization loans received by the NRB. Lebedev said the bank had repaid the loans in full.

“The things they do with our publisher can be called a crime against people who fight corruption,” Novaya Gazeta Editor-in-Chief Dmitry Muratov told Novye Izvestia daily and said his newspaper plans to continue to come out “despite anything.”

Novaya Gazeta spokeswoman Nadezhda Prusenkova told the sale of shares was the last resort “in case the situation becomes completely critical.” She said Lebedev monthly remitted eight million rubles to the daily. “The cultural community of pop starts, actors and musicians suggested holding a concert in our support. There is also a reaction from abroad as we have a lot of readers of our German issue. They are mostly emigrants.”

The Pan-Russian Congress of journalists held in Moscow on February 22 expressed solidarity with Novaya Gazeta.

Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev described the developments as pressure on the free press.

The problems of Novaya Gazeta followed misfortunes faced by critical Echo Moskvy radio station and independent Dozhd (Rain) TV channel. The former was ordered to urgently change the board of directors while the latter underwent a check by prosecutors.

“The situation with Novaya Gazeta, Echo Moskvy, and Dozhd is alarming and smells strong,” said Pavel Gusev, editor-in-chief of Moskovsky Komsomolets newspaper and chairman of the Moscow Union of Journalists. He called to discuss the situation at a meeting of the Public Chamber commission for information policy and freedom of speech.

MOSCOW, February 24.