“There is no such thing as reputation in Russia.”

Posted on January 3, 2017

Any public scandal in Russia will inevitably bring out the old chestnut that, “There is no such thing as reputation in Russia.” You can do, write and say whatever you like because no one will remember it.

Sergey Prostakov

But, even now, there are those who consider it essential that people be taught to answer for their words; and not only Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov. In 2016, the executive director of Rosneft, Igor Sechin, routinely demanded apologies, retractions and payments from journalists for material they had published, which attainted both him and the company he leads. But Sechin is more than modest in his financial demands from the media. Russia’s most recent history has seen cases when the court has compelled payments of $11 million for the publication of allegedly inaccurate information.

Igor Sechin – 390,000 roubles from RBC 

On Monday 12 December, Moscow’s Arbitration Court partially upheld Rosneft’s claim that RBC had defamed the company, compelling RBC to pay 390,000 roubles. Rosneft representatives had assessed the damage to its reputation at more than 3 billion roubles.  The case was provoked by the article “Sechin asked the government to protect Rosneft from BP,” discussing the government’s plans to privatise part of the Rosneft shares. It stated that the British concern could use its 19.5% holding to block the deal, and maintained that, “to prevent this happening, he is asking the government to limit the rights of the purchasers.” Rosneft immediately published a denial. Mikhail Leontyev, Vice President of Rosneft, said in an interview on Business FM radio station, “We should very much like to appeal to the community of journalists – perhaps they need help in, I don’t know, applying a mustard plaster.” Rosneft’s executive director Igor Sechin refrained from comment.

This is not the first lawsuit between Sechin, his company and the media. In May 2014, a magazine had to publish a retraction of information contained in the 2013 ratings for Russian top managers. Sechin has also twice won court cases against the newspaper Vedomosti. In 2014 and in 2016, courts responded to cases brought by Sechin, by compelling the newspaper to publish retractions. In the more recent of the two, the paper even had to destroy one whole edition. The same happened to Novaya Gazeta: the court ordered the removal of the publication “The Secret of the Princess Olga” about Sechin’s yacht.

Thus, the RBC case was the first in which Sechin and his company made financial claims on journalists. They were, however, only partially upheld.

Mikhail Fridman – $11 million from Kommersant 

In 2004, banker Mikhail Fridman won almost $11 million from the Kommersant publishing house (at the exchange rate of the time this is almost 320 million roubles). 20 million roubles were to indemnify the company for losses, and the remaining 320 million for the damage done to the reputation of Alfa Bank.

The court found the information published in the article “The banking crisis hits the streets” to be inaccurate, though the destruction of the paper’s edition was not called for at the time. But on Vladimir Solovyov’s TV programme Challenge to a Duel, Fridman was challenged to a duel by Kommersant editor-in-chief Andrei Vasilyev. Subsequent legal proceedings resulted in a reduction to $1 million of the amount to be paid. But Kommersant had already managed to pay the whole sum, to publish a complete retraction and a blank edition of the newspaper with a dedication to Alfa Bank and personally to Mikhail Fridman.

Ilya Varlamov – 480,000 roubles from Komsomolskaya Pravda 

Newspaper Komsomolskaya pravda is not the only media outlet, which has figured in legal proceedings with the blogger Ilya Varlamov. The media makes fairly frequent use of pictures from his photoblog in their publications, cutting out his “watermark” signatures. “I don’t like it when a publisher takes my picture, cuts out the copyright information and uses it for his own purposes. When this happens, the publisher will certainly receive a claim against him,” said Varlamov (2012).

Varlamov has been entangled in legal proceedings with the media for some years. In the same 2012 post, he gave the statistics: “Last year I brought 30 cases in defence of my copyright and I won them all. The newspaper Your Day, for instance, paid me 230,000 roubles for just one picture. These are big sums. A publisher who reprints a post from LiveJournal with 50 pictures will receive a claim for millions.”

In 2015 Varlamov took Omsk media to court for publishing photographs of his cat Omsk. The scale of these claims was from 280,000 to 400,000 roubles. Varlamov won 480,000 from a case against Kommersant in the same year.

But Russian courts do not always welcome those doing battle to protect their copyright. In September 2016, the intellectual property court quashed judgments in favour of Varlamov in a case claiming 558,000 roubles from the Yekaterinburg portal 66.ru.

In August, two weeks before this historic decision, local media representatives launched a campaign #StopVarlamov, aimed at “putting an end to the shady business of the well-known blogger, politician and public activist Ilya Varlamov who has transformed the abuse of copyright into a constant source of income.” At that time Varlamov had 33 ongoing cases for an overall sum of 11.4 million roubles.

Nikita Mikhalkov – 400,000 roubles in total 

As far back as the premiere of his first cinema epic Burnt by the Sun (1995), the well-known director was roundly criticising the media, which, to his mind, was organising a campaign against the film. He set up a You Tube channel – Exorcist-TV – to host his counter-propaganda.

But it was diamonds that first inspired him to take journalists to court. In 2013, information came out that the diamond mining company ChelPromDiamond, of which Mikhalkov was a co-founder, was engaged in the illegal trade of precious stones. The director immediately lodged claims against several media companies: Group of Experts, SVR – Mediaprojects, Forbes Media LLC, TV Centre, and RIA Novosti. Overall, he was demanding a sum of almost 3 million roubles from the companies.

During the legal proceedings, Mikhalkov’s representatives insisted that the company did not belong to him, he only owned 10% of the equity capital, was not acquainted with the management, had not visited the company and was not in receipt of dividends. Mikhalkov was not pleased that the published texts could be interpreted to show that the director himself was engaging in illegal diamond trading. The headings did indeed indicate that Mikhalkov was a co-founder of the company, but, as the journalists pointed out, nowhere was it said that Mikhalkov himself was trading unlawfully.

The court took a compromise decision. The published material was not defamatory, but more care needed to be taken with headlines in future. This resulted in Mikhalkov receiving 50,000 roubles from each media outlet, and from some he received an additional 50,000 for the fact that the news about the diamonds had been illustrated with his picture.

Yury Luzhkov – 30,000 roubles from Echo of Moscow, Life News and newspaper Your Day

While he was mayor of Moscow, Yury Luzhkov took the media to court on more than one occasion. He always won. But his last case, in December 2010, was merely proof of the political decline of one of the most important regional leaders of post-Soviet Russia.

A month and a half before the “loss of confidence” [in Luzhkov] of August 2010, the newspaper Your Day published a piece about him using the Moscow city budget to restore the bees to his hives. The former mayor wanted 10 million roubles from the publishers who had reprinted this information and another million from the author of the article, Anton Alexandrov (in court this name turned out to be a pseudonym).

The court finally ordained that the former mayor should be paid 10,000 roubles by each of the three defendants, and that the information about using the Moscow budget should be retracted.

This article was first published in Open Russia 

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