Russian payments to prominent journalist Hubert Seipel shake Germany | ET REALITY

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After Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022, Germany went through a period of uncomfortable soul-searching over the close ties some of its political and business leaders had with Moscow.

That self-examination extended to the country’s journalistic establishment this week after it was published reports revealed that an award-winning television host and author who has extensively covered Russian President Vladimir V. Putin had received hundreds of thousands of euros in undisclosed payments from companies linked to a billionaire Putin ally.

The reports, produced by a consortium of publishing outlets including Germany’s Der Spiegel and The Guardian from Britain, relied on what the consortium said was a leaked cache of offshore financial records. They said the announcer, Hubert Seipel, had been paid about 600,000 euros (about $651,000) in fees from accounts connected to Alexei A. Mordashov, a prominent Russian businessman, who was placed under sanctions by the United States last year as a way to punish Putin for his war in Ukraine. The payments were to support Seipel’s books about Putin, according to reports.

The news that a prominent journalist in Germany has been linked to large payments from someone in Russia who is seen as a representative of that country’s government has raised concerns in Germany that Russia has continued to use an old playbook to build relationships with experts from High profile. and opinion leaders to subtly and covertly promote their interests, this time deep within the journalistic establishment.

“It is not a singular phenomenon,” Franziska Davies, a specialist in Eastern European history at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, said of Seipel. Davies, who in the past has spoken openly about the objectivity of Seipel and others, added: “They were presented as experts but they said what Moscow liked to hear.”

Seipel did not respond to requests for comment. But in published reports he denied that his impartiality was at risk. “I always established clear legal boundaries that guaranteed my independence,” he said in The Guardian. He also said that he had always “described the world as it is, not as it should be.”

Seipel had also produced work for German public broadcaster NDR, including interviews with American-born whistleblower Edward J. Snowden and with Putin. In a statement, NDR said Seipel had recently acknowledged receiving money from Mordashov through two “endorsement contracts” in 2013 and 2018, explaining that it was for two book projects.

He wrote a biography in 2015, “Putin: Insider Views of Power” and “Putin’s Power: Why Europe Needs Russia,” published in 2021. They were seen as pro-Putin, German observers said.

In his statement, NDR said that only after being confronted did Mr. Seipel disclose the payments, and that the station viewed the payments as a significant conflict of interest that called into question its journalistic independence.

“There is a suspicion that we and therefore our audience have been deliberately misled,” NDR artistic director Joachim Knuth said in a statement. “We are now investigating this and examining legal measures.”

In published reports, Seipel, who also appeared regularly on German talk shows to discuss Russia and the war in Ukraine, was quoted as saying that the payments were only for the books, not for films or television interviews.

On Wednesday, his German publisher, Hoffmann and Campe, which said it was unaware of the payments, issued a statement saying it had “decided not to offer Hubert Seipel’s books for sale again.”

Bret Schafer, a fellow at the German Marshall Fund in Washington, said any Russian success in establishing relations with a journalist within a country’s established media outlets would likely prove effective, from Moscow’s point of view.

“This is an exceptionally strange arrangement for a journalist to receive a covert payment from an ally of his subject, but it fits very well with Russia’s efforts to influence the West through influential people,” he said.

Schafer had investigated the work of Russian broadcaster RT Deutsch during the last German election, in 2021, and said it was an example of overt and successful Russian influence.

Mordashov, the Russian oligarch, has interests in Severstal, the steel and mining company. He was also subjected European Union sanctions while he was a shareholder in Rossiya Bank, the block said. The bank, he added, “is considered the personal bank of senior officials of the Russian Federation” and had opened branches throughout Russian-occupied Crimea. A Severstal spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.

According to published reports, financial documents obtained by the consortium included a “deed of sponsorship” signed in 2018 by Mr. Seipel and a director of De Vere Worldwide Corporation, a company that was allegedly registered in the British Virgin Islands and had links to Mr. Mordashov’s empire.

Under the sponsorship contract, Seipel was reportedly to receive “logistical and organizational support” for the research in Russia, but had “no obligation to the sponsor in relation to the project,” including the content. The documents referred to another deed signed by another company, Cavern, which was reportedly likely related to Mr. Mordashov.

The revelations have sparked concern in Germany about Russian influence in the media, and a newspaper article about the scandal. Time It carried the headline “The Russian Submarine.”

The war in Ukraine had already forced Germany into extensive scrutiny of its long-standing economic and energy ties with Russia, which left it deeply dependent on Russian gas and raised questions about whether Germany’s significant and lucrative trade ties had influenced its political approach. before the brutal invasion of Moscow. The debate focused mainly on former chancellor Gerhard Schröder, who made millions while promoting Russian energy interests and subsequently became a pariah.

Ms Davies said that, in his public comments on German television, Mr Seipel had at times been critical of Ukraine, emphasizing corruption and nationalism more than other commentators, and placing greater responsibility on the United States for allegedly forcing the conflict. .

According to Der Spiegel, Seipel had presented a more pleasant face to Putin, accompanying him on deer hunts and playing billiards with the Russian leader, whom Seipel showed in a documentary playing ice hockey alone, training for judo. and swimming and cuddling a dog.

In the 2012 documentaryIn “I, Putin: A Portrait,” Seipel is shown interviewing Putin in a limousine as they drive through Moscow. He asks the Russian leader where the West’s low opinion of Russia comes from, and Putin replies “fear” of Russia, but adds that it is “old thinking.”

“He was always close to Putin and we wondered, how was he handling this?” said Markus Ziener, a former journalist and visiting fellow at the German Marshall Fund in Berlin.

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