Watching the ‘Panama Papers’ News in Russia

A quick tour of the coverage in one of the countries affected by the leaks

Maxim Shemetov / Reuters

MOSCOW—After a community of investigative journalists uncovered documents appearing to show that scores of world leaders and public officials could be engaged in money laundering, tax avoidance, and various forms of financial wrongdoing, the disclosures were splashed liberally on front pages around the world.

But in Russia, coverage was spottier.

Reporting by the International Committee of International Journalists (ICIJ) in Russia’s newspapers and online media that close associates of President Vladimir Putin hid money offshore appeared to be divided along political lines, with the clutch of liberal-minded independent outlets giving the findings generous coverage.

Initially Russian television stations, which set the news agenda across the country’s 11 time zones, entirely skipped the so-called Panama Papers, leading instead with revelations of a doping scandal—in London.

State-run Rossia 1 and First Channel, and private stations REN-TV and NTV, failed to mention any aspect of the report in lengthy morning-news programming on April 4. Their segments led with news of a fire in Tomsk, the Syria crisis, and the migrant crisis in the European Union.

The stations meted out special attention to a doping scandal in London exposed by the Sunday Times on April 3 in which a private British doctor said he prescribed performance-enhancing drugs to 150 athletes from Britain and abroad.

Vesti TV station did mention the ICIJ report in a news story on its website in the middle of the night—but only in relation to allegations that soccer legends Lionel Messi and Michel Platini were implicated. Apart from a follow-up on Messi and Platini, Vesti next mentioned the ICIJ scandal online only after the Kremlin reacted.

Commenting on the report more than 16 hours after the news broke, Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov lashed out about “Putinophobia,” claiming the ICIJ staff comprises “many former representatives of the [U.S.] State Department, and the CIA, and other special services.”

The ICIJ investigation linked 140 leaders and public officials—including Western-backed Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko—to offshore dealings, but Peskov was quoted by Vesti as saying the attack was all about the West dealing a blow to Russia’s head of state: “Although Putin does not figure factually, and although other countries and other leaders are referred to, and so on, for us, it is of course obvious that the main target of these leaks was and remains our president, especially in the context of future parliamentary elections, and in the context of the long-term prospects.”

Once Peskov had commented, media organizations that had ignored the revelations began their coverage. They included newspapers like mass-circulation, pro-Kremlin tabloid Izvestia, which eventually gave Peskov’s comments condemning “Putinophobia” top billing. The Lifenews tabloid website adopted a similar approach.

The tone of their coverage contrasted starkly with coverage in liberal, opposition-minded outlets like radio station Ekho Moskvy, cable television station Dozhd, or investigative newspaper Novaya Gazeta. Influential business titles like Kommersant, Vedomosti, and RBK covered aspects of the allegations.

English-language broadcaster RT, formerly known as Russia Today, accused Western media of deliberately focusing on Putin and Russia despite the naming of British Prime Minister David Cameron’s father in the ICIJ report.

RT led with the sentence: “Sections of the British public have slammed their local media outlets for ignoring the fact Prime Minister David Cameron’s father was caught up in a massive data leak involving possible tax evasion.”

Cameron’s father died in 2010.

This post appears courtesy of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.