A former editor at a Russian state media outlet has said she felt forced to resign after writing a report that cast doubt on the safety of food provided to Moscow’s nurseries and schools by a Kremlin-connected businessman known as “Putin’s chef”. Darya Burlakova said management at the Tass news agency blacklisted her article because…
A former editor at a Russian state media outlet has said she felt forced to resign after writing a report that cast doubt on the safety of food provided to Moscow’s nurseries and schools by a Kremlin-connected businessman known as “Putin’s chef”.
Darya Burlakova said management at the Tass news agency blacklisted her article because it was critical of the catering company Concord, owned by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a wealthy businessman sanctioned by the US over allegedattempts to meddlein the 2016 American presidential election. Prigozhin gained his nickname because his companies often provide catering services to the Kremlin.
Concord has been blamed by opposition activists for a mass outbreak of dysentery among nursery children in Moscow in December. Scores of children were taken ill, said Lyubov Sobol, a member of Kremlin criticAlexei Navalny’s anti-corruption organisation. The majority were admitted to hospital, with some of them spending time in intensive care wards. Critics say reports of the illnesses were hushed up by Russian officials and state media was barred from covering the topic.
Burlakova told the Guardian that Tass management had “clearly named the reason for the withdrawal of my material from publication – it featured references to Prigozhin’s business interests”. Prigozhin’s contract to supply food to Moscow’s nurseries and schools is reported to be worth over 10bn roubles (£117m).
Aside from providing food to nurseries and schools, Prigozhin, who served nine years in prison in the Soviet era on charges that included robbery, is also believed to supply mercenaries for the Kremlin’s military operationsin Syriaand Ukraine through the Wagner Group, a shadowy private military contractor.
Burlakova said her report for Tass was written before December’s outbreak of dysentery, but contained numerous complaints from parents concerned about the quality of the food supplied by Prigozhin’s companies. The food is produced remotely and reheated before being served to children.
“Perhaps, if my report hadn’t been hushed up, then this outbreak of dysentery wouldn’t have happened,” she said. “But it appears that Tass management don’t want their staff writing things that are unpleasant for people close to the authorities.”
Tass told the Guardian in a statement that its journalists do not carry out investigations. “Our specialisation as an information agency is news and related genres, so Darya could not in principle have been tasked with investigating any topic,” it said.
It was not until late last month that that Russia’s consumer rights watchdog belatedly admitted that the children had had dysentery. It said the children had been taken ill after eating cottage cheese provided by a firm in Lipetsk, in westernRussia. Concord admitted that it had worked with the firm in question in the past, but insisted it was no longer doing business with it.
Burlakova later published an updated version of her report in Novaya Gazeta, an opposition newspaper, in which she detailed threats of violence apparently received by parents who have complained about Prigozhin’s catering services.
Journalists employed at Russian state media outlets say censorship, including self-censorship, is widespread.
“State news agencies have much higher salaries than liberal independent ones,” said one state media journalist, speaking on condition of anonymity. “So it’s either trying to survive in Moscow on 50,000 roubles (£585) a month, or you go RIA Novosti or Tass or RT or somewhere else. But once you’re there, you know what’s off limits and what’s not. Mentioning Putin’s inner circle is off limits, obviously. So 90% of state media journalists would condemn what Burlakova did. It’s like a betrayal.”
Burlakova said she hopes that by speaking out about her experiences at Tass, she can help change such attitudes. “State media belongs to citizens,” she said. “It shouldn’t hush up issues that are important for society.”