Russian journalists condemn 'gag' after Putin story

The 12 December edition of Kommersant Vlast The row relates to the 12 December edition of Kommersant Vlast

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Journalists at a Russian newspaper have signed an open letter of protest after its owner fired two top executives over a photo insulting Vladimir Putin.

More than 60 staff at Kommersant, a liberal business daily, signed the letter after the owner, metals magnate Alisher Usmanov, sacked the two men.

"We are being compelled to be cowards, which is unworthy and unproductive," the internet letter said.

Mr Usmanov said he understood the journalists but stood by his decision.

A report on Russia's disputed parliamentary election in Monday's issue of Kommersant Vlast, the newspaper's magazine, contained a photo of a spoiled ballot paper with an obscene message to Mr Putin scrawled over it in red ink.

The magazine cover shows Russia's powerful prime minister staring into a ballot box with the headline "Win for United Stuffers", playing on the name of Mr Putin's party, United Russia, and the alleged practice of stuffing ballot-boxes with fake votes.

Mr Usmanov subsequently sacked the magazine's editor, Maxim Kovalsky, and the head of the publisher's parent holding company, Andrei Galiyev.

Demyan Kudryavtsev, head of the Kommersant Publishing House, took the blame and submitted his own resignation, saying on his blog that the magazine issue had been published "in violation of internal procedures, professional journalistic standards and the Russian law".

'Decent society'

In their letter, published on the openspace.ru website, the journalists argue that the obscene words in the photo were not "the words of the magazine... but a photo capturing the true behaviour of voters at the election".

A portrait of Vladimir Putin on a stage near the Kremlin, 12 December Mr Putin's portrait is multiplying ahead of the March presidential election

Defending Kovalsky's integrity, they say: "For us to defend him is to defend our own honour and dignity."

"We regard his dismissal as an act of intimidation aimed at preventing any critical words about Vladimir Putin...

"We take particular offence at the attempt to present the dismissal of a man for his professional position as a fight for the purity of the Russian language.

"This is the same kind of fabrication that offended people at the election."

In addition to the Kommersant staff, journalists from the online newspaper gazeta.ru signed the letter.

Mr Usmanov told Russian media: "I believe I took the right decision and do not intend to reverse it.

"Emotionally, I can understand the journalists speaking up for sacked top managers...

"However... Kommersant Vlast is a respectable, independent, socio-political publication."

Writers in recent issues had, he said, "crossed the line, breaking ethical standards accepted by decent society".

Mr Usmanov, who is a major Arsenal FC shareholder, also made clear he had no intention of selling Kommersant despite an offer from fellow tycoon Mikhail Prokhorov to buy it.

"Prokhorov did indeed phone me and asked me to sell Kommersant," he said. "I replied that I liked his joke."

Mr Putin is standing for re-election as president in March, and Mr Prokhorov has declared his intention to stand too.

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