Russia media group that angered Kremlin is sold

MOSCOW (Reuters) - A Russian media group which angered some in the Kremlin by reporting on the business interests of people close to President Vladimir Putin was sold on Friday to the owner of a tabloid that is deferential to the Russian leader.

Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov speaks during a news conference, dedicated to addressing issues in the upcoming Moscow mayoral elections, in Moscow June 13, 2013. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin

Businessman Grigory Berezkin’s ESN group said in a statement it has acquired a 65 percent stake in the RBC media holding, plus debt, from Onexim Group, which is controlled by metals magnate Mikhail Prokhorov.

The completion of the deal marks the end of a seven-year period when RBC under the ownership of Prokhorov published hard-hitting investigations, including into the business affairs of Putin’s inner circle.

It stood out from most of the mainstream media in Russia, which are either controlled by the state or state-run companies, or tend to steer clear of topics which could anger powerful officials.

Last year, according to several people familiar with the Kremlin’s thinking, some figures close to Putin grew angry with RBC’s coverage. Around the same time, Russian law enforcement officers in ski masks raided the offices of Onexim.

Soon after, the media group’s editor-in-chief left the country, and new senior managers were brought in from a state-run news agency. A large proportion of the group’s journalists resigned, saying they anticipated restrictions on the topics on which they could report.

“Apparently the asset became toxic, and they (the owners) wanted to get rid of it,” Elizaveta Osetinskaya, the former editor-in-chief, told Reuters on Friday.

The Kremlin has always denied having pressured RBC over its reporting or being involved in Prokhorov’s decision to sell.

The deal has been under negotiation for weeks. Financial details have not been disclosed. Berezkin, the new owner, already owns the Komsomolskaya Pravda tabloid newspaper.

Its pages are usually dominated by crime stories and celebrity gossip. Critical reporting on the president or his senior allies is rare in the newspaper.

A spokeswoman for ESN group declined to comment on whether the new owner would change RBC’s senior staff or editorial policy.

Osetinskaya, the former editor, said that after her departure last year, RBC had continued to report independently. She said when it gave prominent coverage to anti-Kremlin protests in March, she thought that might lead to problems for the group.

“Perhaps they did not restrain themselves sufficiently,” she said of RBC’s current management.

Reporting by Anastasia Lyrchikova; writing by Vladimir Soldatkin; Editing by Christian Lowe and Alison Williams