The article attacking Novaya Gazeta, the internationally renowned independent Russian newspaper, was originally published by an obscure website called Zhurnalistskaya Pravda [Journalistic Truth] on December 3. It then was shared by at least four other agencies and appeared at the top of the Russian search engine Yandex.ru, displaying all the elements of a deliberate information campaign.
The piece accused Novaya Gazeta of working on the West’s orders to undermine the Russian state. In particular, it claimed that Novaya Gazeta is following the orders of exiled Russian oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a longtime rival of President Vladimir Putin. The writer dismissed as “fake” a series of groundbreaking investigative reports by Novaya Gazeta unmasking the activities of the Russian private military company Wagner and its owner Yevgeniy Progozhin, and claimed Wagner does not exist.
Our fact check found all three claims to be false.
Although Mikhail Khodorkovsky does have ties, including financial, with some Russian media outlets, Novaya Gazeta is not one of them.
Dmitry Muratov, the founder and former chief editor of Novaya Gazeta, told Polygraph.info in a phone interview that the newspaper has “absolutely no financial or otherwise relations with Mikhail Khodorkovsky.”
Muratov said Novaya Gazeta receives financial support from two Russian citizens he said would prefer not to identify, in order to avoid putting them under direct threat from the Russian government.
Muratov said the Russian businessman Alexander Lebedev, a longtime supporter of Novaya Gazeta who once owned a 39% stake of the newspaper, had to stop aiding Novaya Gazeta financially because of government pressure. To protect the newspaper, Lebedev ultimately gave the majority of his shares to Novaya Gazeta’s staff.
Currently, the newspaper’s staff owns a 76% controlling stake, while Lebedev holds a 14% stake and former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev holds a 10% stake.
In September, Novaya Gazeta published a plea for donations, citing a lack of funds and financial hardship that put the newspaper on the edge of closure.
“…fake news about ‘hundreds of dead’”
Novaya Gazeta has published a series of investigative reports detailing the activities of the man known as President Vladimir Putin’s confidant and chef, Yevgeny Prigozhin.
Prigozhin is reportedly involved in the Kremlin’s disinformation campaigns both abroad and in Russia, having under his control the Internet Research Agency, also known as the “troll factory.”
As part of its investigative series, Novaya Gazeta published several reports on the activities and origins of Wagner, Prigozhin’s private military company, which, contrary to the claim made by “Journalistic Truth,” does exist, as shown in the reporting done by Polygraph.info and many others.
However, according to Muratov, Novaya Gazeta “never wrote about hundreds of deaths of Wagner mercenaries.”
The paramilitary personnel, who many describe as mercenaries, themselves claimed these numbers in an appeal to the International Criminal Court, in which they demanded that the Russian owners of private military companies be investigated, and blamed the Russian government for “not honoring” the mercenaries’ sacrifices in “the Donbas, Syria, Libya, the Central African Republic, Gabon.”
While the Kremlin firmly denies any military involvement in these conflicts, the mercenaries claimed in their appeal to the International Criminal Court that they have fought on the orders of the Russian state, and demanded official recognition as veterans entitled to government pensions. The appeal was signed by 357 PMC veterans from 52 Russian regions.
“Journalistic Truth” + the Troll Farm + Maria Butina
The “About us” section of Journalistic Truth describes the website as an “information-analysis outlet dedicated to the mass media in Russia and in the world.”
The website’s office is located on Krasnogvardeisky Lane 23 in Saint Petersburg same as its founder, the Federal News Agency, which has been identified as one of the arms of Prigozhin’s troll farm.
“We have been targeted by Prigozhin and his hundreds of ‘media’ for our investigative work. He had his spies trying to infiltrate our staff, his people physically attacking our offices, but it is beneath Novaya Gazeta to respond to them directly. We will continue doing our journalistic investigations,” Muratov told Polygraph.info.
Tracking the paths of the Journalistic Truth piece to other outlets, and ultimately to the top of the Yandex.ru search engine, reveals another arm of the troll farm – this one in Russian-occupied Crimea.
The name of author of the attack on Novaya Gazeta, Alexandr Rogers, means nothing to Russia watchers. Yet, at the time of this publication, he ranks #24 on the list of the top 100 Russian language blogs. On the popular web portal 24smi.org he is profiled as a celebrity, and his Twitter account has around 3K followers.
Besides his pieces published on the Journalistic Truth website, Rogers has nearly 200 articles under his byline on the website NewsFront.info, where his piece on Novaya Gazeta has also been featured linking to the original Journalistic Truth publication.
NewsFront.info publishes in Russian, Bulgarian, German, English, Estonian, Serbian, French and Hungarian, and positions itself as Crimea’s leading news agency.
According to Russian tax authorities’ data, NewsFront.info was registered with Roskomnadzor (the Russian federal agency regulating mass media and communications) in April 2015 as a private “news agency” by a company called “Media Group News Front.” For fiscal 2017, NewsFront.info declared a budget of 712,000 rubles (around $12,200).
The tax authority’s database lists Media Group News Front’s physical address as: Gagarina Street 11, Apartment 21, Bakhchisaray, Republic of Crimea.
The official physical address is at odds with the IP data, which may be due to the use of VPN services. While the IP address for NewsFront.info is protected from tracking, a Whois.com search found the following information about the website administrator:
Admin City: Moscow
Admin Postal Code: 123007
Admin Country: RU
Admin Phone: +7.4955801111
Admin Fax: +7.4955801111
Notably, the phone numbers listed for the administrator of the website begin with the Moscow city code (495), and Google Maps drops the location pin for the zip code “123007” somewhere in Khoroshyovsky district, just outside of Moscow’s Third Ring.
There are also other peculiarities about the physical address: according to registry data, a firm called Global Information Technologies is located in the same office suite as the News-Front.info agency and Media Group News Front, while the three companies report no formal ties.
Another odd connection with “information technologies” is that the Crimean Federal University (owned by the Russian state) lists Media Group News Front as one of the main “guaranteed employment options” for its graduates in “IT programming and computer systems” – a degree reportedly in high demand among Russian intelligence cyber units and with Prigozhin’s Internet Research Agency.
Finally, Sergey Veselovsky, listed as a founder of both Media Group News Front and Global Information Technologies, is known for his video blogs from the Russian side of the conflict zone in Ukraine’s Donbas region.
One of his Donbas “frontline” interviews featured Maria Butina, the accused Russian agent arrested in the United States, who Veselvosky presented as “nasha boyevaya podruga” – “our sister in arms.” Butina’s photo continues to be featured as the “profile” photo on social media for the Russian Federation’s Foreign Ministry.
Oddly, one of the places where Veselovsky checks in on his Facebook account is Salisbury, UK –showing that he visited the town where Russian intelligence used the military grade chemical agent Novichok earlier this year to poison a former spy.
By Fatima Tlis, for Polygraph