RT has obtained documents related to the publication “Project”, known for its investigation under the name “Cart from the Kremlin“ and a number of other materials “exposing” the Russian authorities. As it turned out, the self-described independent media was funded from abroad — in the form of so-called grants from European and American authorities. The editors accepted the money, promising detailed reporting on audience growth, the distribution of their materials and the reaction to them, including in political circles. At the same time, as it became known to RT, the founder and editor-in-chief of “Project” Roman Badanin appealed to his foreign sponsors not only for financial assistance, but also with a request to find him an alternative job in the US.
“Project.Media” was founded in 2018 by the former deputy editor-in-chief of “Gazeta.ru”, former editor-in-chief of “RBK” and “Dozhd“ Roman Badanin. The online publication publishes its materials in Russian and English. Topics — political, economic and social problems in Russia. The publication, according to the documents available to RT, is managed by the legal entity Project Media, registered in the US, but there is a company with the same name in Lithuania. Both are managed by Roman Badanin.
In January 2019, RT reported that the total amount of funding for “Project” at the start was $500,000. Now it became clear who exactly allocated the largest part of the funds to Badanin. For example, the American or Lithuanian “Project Media” in 2018 received $330,000 in grants – as “support for high-quality investigative journalism in Russia”. Grants were issued by three foreign non-profit foundations, two of which are directly controlled by the European and American authorities.
In particular, the European Endowment for Democracy (EED) allocated $240,000 to “Project”, and the American “National Endowment for Democracy” (NED) wrote out a check for $40,000. Another $50,000 was transferred to the publication by the Bermuda-based Sreda Foundation, owned by Boris Zimin, the son of Dmitry Zimin, the co-founder of VimpelCom, who lives abroad. At the disposal of RT were supporting documents from the listed funds.
The European EED, founded by the EU member states, and NED, funded by the US Congress, are recognised in Russia as undesirable organisations. Boris Zimin’s Sreda Foundation is also included in the register of foreign NGOs. Zimin Jr., who now lives abroad like his father, is known as one of the most influential sponsors of the “Anti-corruption Foundation” of Aleksey Navalny.
The fact that NED and EED helped “Project” with money is also stated in Badanin’s application to the US Migration Service for obtaining a permanent visa. The financial participation of the Zimins in “Project” was not previously known.
On the website, the project calls itself “independent media“, an association of investigative journalists and reporters that explores “complex and dangerous topics” that many other media outlets do not look into.
In addition to Badanin, the publication employs nine other employees. These are the first deputy editor-in-chief, political commentator Mikhail Rubin, publisher Polina Machold, art director Boris Dubakh, editor of the Opinion department Mariya Zheleznova, correspondents Mariya Zholobova, Olga Churakova, Yuliya Lukyanova, Sonya Groysman and Daniil Sotnikov.
EED Grant: Self-Sufficient and Fired Journalists
From the documents available to RT, it follows that the “European Endowment for Democracy”, in the period from August 1st 2018 to September 30th 2019, allocated €205,240 to “Project” ($240,000 at the exchange rate of that time). In the other documents that RT has read, this amount of the EED grant appears in dollars. For example, in a document from July 2018.
According to the roadmap for the implementation of the agreement with EED, one of the key goals of the grant is “maintaining media freedom in Russia”. To do this, it was supposed to establish a new multimedia media outlet that would publish important notes on social topics on a weekly basis. However, the requirements in the document make us forget that we are talking about a grant — they are more similar to those published by clients under state contracts: the “road map” describes exactly what tasks need to be completed. So, in September 2019, by the end of the agreement, EED expected to receive at least 20 videos, podcasts and infographic materials, 35 “thematic articles” in exchange for the transferred amount. And the number of views of each note should have been at least 150,000.
To implement all these regulations, Badanin, in agreement with EED, established certain requirements for the composition of the editorial board. In particular, in the column about ways to achieve the goals, it is indicated that “Project” is going to hire only journalists who were dismissed from other media.
“To unite highly qualified journalists who have lost their jobs due to censorship in Russia,” the roadmap for implementing the grant’s goals says.
By May 2019, according to the EED plans, “Project” was supposed to reach self-sufficiency and attract up to €8,000 in the form of donations from the audience per month.
A gift from US Congress
RT also has at its disposal NED documents with details of the issue of another $40,000 to “Project”. These are financial papers, statements, and part of Badanin’s text reports to American sponsors.
According to all this information, the agreement with NED on receiving the grant was signed in September 2018, and the first tranche was given in October. The money was given in order to “expand the access of the Russian-speaking audience to high-quality independent investigations”, according to the annex to the agreement with NED. The grant-giver also counted on “developing the ability of independent Russian media to effectively promote and distribute content in a digital format”.
According to the agreement, $5,000 was pledged from American money for Badanin’s salary as the editor-in-chief, the technical director received $18,000. The remaining $17,000 was spent on the fees and salaries of designers.
Although NED allocated the least amount of money to the sponsors known to RT, it imposed the most stringent reporting requirements on Badanin.
The founder of “Project” had to send four financial and four descriptive reports a year — to talk in detail about how “Project” works and how well it manages to achieve the set goals.
Badanin had to regularly report on the site’s pageviews and visits. It was necessary to provide links to the most important of the published notes, to report on the number of published articles and reactions to them.
“Indicators of success can include the development of the site, an increase in the production of engaging materials in social media, as well as the expansion of the audience of investigations through publications in social networks and digital content,” the NED documents state.
In addition, NED was interested in the public reaction to the notes and the mention of “Project” in foreign media.
“The organisation will track the impact and improvement of its online presence, particularly in terms of audience size and engagement,” the NED agreement states in an appendix. “Indicators of success may include greater public access to high-quality independent Russian-language investigative reporting, political responses to or prominent citations of its investigations that have attracted widespread attention, more active discussion and awareness of alternative points of view that differ from the disinformation and propaganda discourse promoted by the authorities.”
For financial reports, it was necessary to provide receipts and bank statements. According to an RT interlocutor familiar with the situation who wished to remain anonymous, in addition to the planned financial reports, Badanin could at any time write to the NED compliance department and request additional documents to confirm the expenses incurred.
In one language
Unlike the multi-page agreements with the American NED with additional agreements and detailed reporting, the agreement of the Bermuda-based Sreda Foundation for a grant of $50,000 for Project Media takes up one page.
The Sreda Foundation has previously awarded Badanin personally with journalism awards. Zimin Jr. and Badanin have known each other since at least 2017, when the latter received the “Editorial Board” award established by the Sreda Foundation. They know each other personally: they are friends on Facebook, Zimin writes columns for “Project”.
Perhaps that is why the Sreda Foundation did not put forward any special requirements to the grant recipient — the “Project” publication. The contract only states that the award is issued for organisational support and the main activities of the publication. At the same time, the grant recipient does not bear any counter-obligations.
The quality of journalism was evaluated by the court
In the documents examined by RT from the grant-givers, in one way or another, there is an indication of support for “Project” as a high-quality investigative publication with high standards of professional activity. However, a number of events surrounding “Project” and its journalists leave questions about the quality of their journalistic work and the objectivity of their materials.
Roman Badanin is now a defendant in the trial concerning the case for the protection of business reputation in connection with the Project’s material, “Cart from the Kremlin”. It published information about the connection of businessman Vladislav Klyushin with Telegram channels allegedly controlled by the presidential administration. Klyushin sued and demanded to delete this information, citing its unreliability. In the district court, Klyushin was rejected, but the decision was overturned on appeal and Rubin and Badanin were found responsible for spreading defamatory information, and they were charged with compensation for moral damage in the amount of 50,000 rubles.
After that, Rubin and Badanin filed a cassation appeal, but the deadline for its submission was missed and the complaint was returned without consideration. But the story did not end there — a new hearing is scheduled for March 2021, presumably to renew the missed deadline for filing a cassation appeal (according to the materials of the case 02-0027/2019 of the Savelovsky District Court, file “Case 33-52274_2019. Determination of the court of appeal”).
Earlier, in January 2018, the Investigative Committee of St. Petersburg initiated a criminal case under the article “Libel” after the release of the investigation “Petersburg. Father and Son” on the “Dozhd“ TV channel. It talks about the family of Ilya Traber, who was allegedly “close” to the president and built a business thanks to his connections with the country’s top leadership. Traber appealed to the Investigative Committee with a statement saying that he was slandered. Among the authors of the investigation was Roman Badanin. The case is still under investigation, it is not known about the appearance of suspects or accused in the case.
Badanin himself, as RT learned, after the launch of the project, persistently looked for opportunities to stay in the US and asked his interlocutor from NED to inquire about the availability of suitable vacancies. How the discussion of this issue ended is unknown to RT.
RT sent requests to the Sreda Foundation, NED and EED asking for comment on the information presented in the article. At the moment, no response has been received from any of these foundations.
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