News agency fires editor, loses entire staff

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MOSCOW – The head of a major Russian regional news agency unusually critical of the local authorities was fired on Friday in what she called the result of official pressure on editorial policy.

The board of directors of Ura.Ru, a news agency in Russia’s Urals region based in Yekaterinburg, “fired me from the post of director and agency’s chief editor,” Aksana Panova said.

Panova’s staff of 30 left with her to start a new project, she said, however the project’s future was unclear as it has no legal status.

The decision was rooted in the Sverdlovsk region’s pressure to change the editorial policy of the agency, said Panova, who is facing a barrage of allegations from regional investigators.

“There are four criminal probes against me, and six more in production,” she said. “I go in for questioning on a nearly daily basis.”

Police raided the agency in late September as part of what they said was a probe into a theft from Ura.Ru’s account, something Panova dismissed.

Since then, the investigators accused Panova of extortion, saying she blackmailed people about whom the agency wrote critically for money.

“The main thing that Ura.Ru had was its unbending, clowning, restless spirit. That made many people dislike us,” said a good-bye message published by Ura.Ru on Thursday after seven years of existence.

“Regional elites have more to gain from a calm, unchallenging information atmosphere,” it said. “But while stability is being built, someone has to talk about… who gets the construction contracts.”

The website of Ura.Ru is not being updated since Thursday evening.

The popular agency which covered seven regions in the Urals frequently published stories on corruption and interviewed Russia’s opposition leaders, an unusual feat in the country where most regional papers are owned by the government.

It earned few allies among officials when it openly allied with the chief of a local cold-turkey drug rehab Evgeny Roizman, a one-time maverick Russian MP who has also crossed swords with the region’s authorities.

Panova said her team is launching another web portal called Znak.com next week, but the future of the project is unclear. “We don’t have a legal entity yet, and we are not registered as media,” she admitted.

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