By Maria Tsvetkova and Polina Devitt
MOSCOW (Reuters) - A former editor of a Russian media group described how he and colleagues were pushed out over reporting that angered officials, in the first public account of the taming of Russia's last big news organization willing to take on the Kremlin.
In his first public comments since his dismissal along with two other top editors from RBC media group in May, Roman Badanin told Reuters that he and his colleagues were fired in the wake of a campaign of pressure on the group's billionaire owner that came to a head after they published a story on the "Panama Papers" leaks.
Last week, RBC managers presented the replacement editors, recruited from state-owned news agency Tass, who told a tense meeting with staff that there would be limits on what and how they could report, according to someone who was present.
RBC's owner Mikhail Prokhorov, a metals magnate who also owns the Brooklyn Nets U.S. basketball team, had previously shielded its journalists. The group's news agency, newspaper and television station wrote stories about Putin's friends and family, and other taboo subjects like the presence of Russian troops in Ukraine.
But after the Panama Papers story in April, which was illustrated with a picture of Putin and alleged that a close childhood friend of the president's had offshore accounts, the official pressure was turned up a notch.
"It was precisely after this, so I'm told, that the problems started," said Badanin.
Days after the story appeared, masked law-enforcement officers raided the headquarters of Prokhorov's holding company Onexim in what officials called a tax investigation.
A short while after, the head of a utility company owned by Onexim group was arrested on suspicion of fraud.
"Apparently the build-up of attacks on the owner became very powerful," Badanin said. "Listen: searches, criminal cases against the management of the company, demonstrations under their windows. Everything at the same time."
"PEOPLE WHO DON'T LIKE US"
Badanin said he had long been aware that officials were angry at RBC's reporting: messages had been passed to its Kremlin reporters and other journalists. A nationalist group led by a pro-Kremlin member of parliament staged several protests in front of the group's offices, accusing it of spreading pro-Western propaganda.
"Of course there are people in the Kremlin who don't like us, that is nothing new," said Badanin.
Under Putin's 17-year rule, major television stations and newspapers have, one by one, come under the control of state firms or oligarchs loyal to the Kremlin, and their coverage has gone from combative to deferential.
However, RBC under Prokhorov's ownership gained a reputation as the last big media company willing to write stories about the most sensitive issues. In the past two years it published articles on Putin's daughter and the business interests of Kirill Shamalov, who Reuters reported last year is Putin's son-in-law.
On May 13, the group announced that it was firing Badanin, the editor of its news agency, as well as group editor-in-chief Elizaveta Osetinskaya, and the editor of its daily newspaper Maxim Solyus.
One of the aims of the sackings "was that the editorial policy would become more cautious", Badanin said.
Badanin said he had learned from executives in the media group that officials had, on occasion, called people close to the group's owners to ask to have some articles removed.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov denied this: "Nobody, and they will confirm this, ever went to them (RBC) with a demand or a request to not publish anything, and certainly nothing was said to the owner. It is a gross exaggeration, an absolutely gross exaggeration."
RBC declined to comment, as did Onexim, Prokhorov's holding group.
By July 7, when RBC General Director Nikolai Molibog presented the new editors recruited from Tass, Elizaveta Golikova and Igor Trosnikov, many journalists had already handed in their notice and others were considering their positions.
Several journalists pressed the new bosses to say if there would be restrictions on what they could report to avoid angering the authorities.
"If someone thinks that you can (publish) whatever, just absolutely everything -- that's not the case," Trosnikov said, according to a transcript of the staff meeting published by news site meduza.io and which was confirmed as authentic by the person present.
"I can't say to you that there are no restrictions at all. They exist. If someone believes there aren't any, they should write for themselves on Facebook."
(Writing by Christian Lowe; editing by Peter Graff)