Russian journalist forced to resign for Telegram channel critical of St. Petersburg authorities

Maria Karpenko was forced to resign from Kommersant daily newspaper for her critical comments about Alexander Beglov, the Kremlin-appointed acting governor in St. Petersburg // Maria Karpenko's Facebook profile

Maria Karpenko, a reporter for Kommersant, one of Russia’s leading business dailies, says she was forced to resign after the paper’s editor-in-chief confronted her about a Telegram channel she co-administrates.

The Telegram channel in question, named Rotonda, is run by a group of journalists from other publications in St. Petersburg and focuses on local politics. It has close to 10,000 followers.

Karpenko wrote on Rotonda:

Привет, это Маша Карпенко, соавтор «Ротонды» и до сегодняшнего дня — корреспондент газеты «Коммерсантъ». Меня уволили: причиной стало недовольство Кремля и Смольного тем, что я пишу здесь и тем, как «Ъ» освещает избирательную кампанию Александра Беглова.

Объясняя причину увольнения, руководитель издательского дома Владимир Желонкин сообщил: то, что я пишу в «Ротонде», не соответствует редакционной политике «Коммерсанта». «Ротонду» он назвал «активизмом, несовместимым с журналистским статусом». Если не относить эти слова на счет критических замечаний «Ротонды» по поводу политики врио губернатора Петербурга Александра Беглова, единственное, что можно назвать активизмом — это настойчивые попытки добиться того, чтобы работа городского правительства была одинаково открытой для всех журналистов (которые я предпринимала в том числе от имени «Ъ» с согласия руководства). Такой активизм считаю не просто совместимым с журналистским статусом, но и неотъемлемой частью этого статуса.

Hi, this is Masha Karpenko, Rotonda’s co-author and until today a correspondent for the Kommersant newspaper. I was fired: the reason for this was the Kremlin and Smolny’s [St. Petersburg city hall] anger at my writings here and my coverage of Alexander Beglov’s [acting governor of St. Petersburg] election campaign in Kommersant.

Explaining the motivations for my dismissal, the director of the publishing house Vladimir Zhelonkin told me: what I write in Rotonda is at odds with Kommersant’s editorial policies. He called Rotonda a piece of “activism incompatible with the status of a journalist.” If we ignore Rotonda’s critical comments about the policies of the acting governor of St. Petersburg Alexander Beglov, my only activity that could possibly be construed as activism were the persistent attempts to provide equal access to the city government’s halls for all journalists, a campaign which I waged with full knowledge of my Kommersant superiors and their blessing. This kind of activism I consider to be not just consistent with my status as a journalist, but an inalienable part of said status.

Karpenko refers to a series of incidents where the government of St. Petersburg allowed only reporters from publications controlled by or loyal to the city authorities to attend their press briefings, while blacklisting critical outlets.

She then writes that Zhelonkin couldn’t have come up with the idea himself. She says he was obviously pressured into firing her for her critical articles and social media posts, likely by someone in St. Petersburg administration or even the Kremlin.

Vladimir Zhelonkin went on Echo of Moscow radio station to comment on Karpenko’s allegations:

Мария Карпенко работала в двух медиа и выбрала работу в одном из них. Её поставили перед выбором и она выбрала. По нашим правилам работать в двух медиа нельзя. Я думаю, что это в трудовом соглашении прописано. Расстались мы по соглашению сторон. Я прочитал её пост [в Телеграме]. Я ей про администрацию президента точно ничего не говорил.

Maria Karpenko worked at two media outlets at the same time and chose to work for one of them [referring to Rotonda] instead. She was given a choice and she made it. Our charter prohibits working for two publications at the same time. This must be written into her contract. We parted ways by mutual agreement. I read her [Telegram] post. I’m sure I haven’t told her anything about the president’s administration.

Other journalists cast doubt on Zhelonkin’s version, saying that even if the rules at Kommersant prohibit working on the side, they're unevenly applied, as demonstrated by Andrey Kolesnikov, Kommersant's star reporter from the Kremlin pool:

It’s interesting how things work at Kommersant: Maria Karpenko lost her job for running a Telegram channel alongside her day job, while Andrey Kolesnikov is still employed there, although he is also the editor in chief of the Russian Pioneer magazine. He is allowed to moonlight without consequences.

Karpenko gave a short interview to Besposchadny Piarschik (The Ruthless Spin Doctor), a Telegram channel focused on the media and PR industry where she disputed Zhelonkin’s statement about the choice she had supposedly been given. Karpenko explained that she was simply informed that her services at Kommersant were no longer required.

She also stressed that she had written a number of critical articles about the city’s administration and never felt any pressure from her superiors to tone it down. But Kommersant’s leadership, she says, was evidently under pressure, in a scenario that ultimately led to her dismissal.

Alexander Beglov, 62, was appointed the acting governor of St. Petersburg last year, after the resignation of Grigory Poltavchenko. Beglov is unpopular among the city’s residents, especially after the winter of 2018-2019 when the city authorities failed to clear the streets of snow and ice, But the Kremlin has made no secret of its preferences in the elections planned for September 2019.

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