Aleksandr Lebedev, the billionaire founder and owner of the Moskovsky Korrespondent newspaper, comments of the reasons for his paper’s suspension (below). The weekly tabloid, which published a scandalous rumor that President Vladimir Putin was marrying gymnast Alina Kabaeva on April 12th, fired its lead editor and stopped publishing before the end of the month. While the official reasons given were financial problems, the suspension was widely believed to be the work of the Kremlin and Putin, who publicly ridiculed the rumor.
Lebedev, who calls the story a “personal vendetta” meant to discredit him, gives different reasons which may shed light on other difficult issues facing media in Russia. These includes constant pressure from local authorities over critical reporting, which targeted not only the Moskovsky Korrespondent, but also its advertisers and distributors. Other Russian papers have also complained of the same kind of harassment.
While Lebedev may have personal reasons for leaving the federal authorities blameless in his paper’s demise, the Putin article is having far-reaching consequences. New amendments to the media law, which redefine slander and libel, and give authorities powers to shut media outlets that print “false facts” have breezed through Russia’s lower house, the State Duma. The amendments, if signed into law, would give the Justice department the right to issue warnings to publications over libelous materials and then close them. One critic, Yelena Zelinskaya, a member of Russia’s Public Chamber, said it was absurd to close a publication for a single error: “If a doctor makes a mistake, do we have to close the entire hospital,” she asked?
Lebedev’s statement was published in the Novaya Gazeta, an independent publication often critical of authorities. Lebedev is a majority shareholder of the Novaya Gazeta.
“The lessons of Moskovskiy Korrespondent: Opinion of the founder of the suspended newspaper”
April 28, 2008
[translated by BBC Monitoring]
The termination of the publication of Moskovskiy Korrespondent, the Moscow city newspaper that had been coming out since last September, gave rise to various rumours and interpretations. With this response, I want to dot the “i’s” and cross the “t’s” and make an attempt to explain the implications of all of these events for the development of the news media in Russia.
The managing company said the main reason for the closure of the newspaper was its economic insolvency. This statement is completely true. The experience with this newspaper proved how much the Russian market for printed publications depends on the goodwill of the authorities – not federal, but local.
Moskovskiy Korrespondent criticized the policies of the local government in the capital, revealed the many problems Muscovites face and thereby created numerous uncomfortable situations for the “city fathers” [the Moscow authorities]. The result was the newspaper’s circulation problems, which are known to everyone and which were caused by retail chains breaking contracts for the sale of publications displeasing the municipal government. They lost money doing this and they never explained the reasons. The possibility of advertising, especially outdoors, which is of vital importance to a new newspaper, was also squelched. We know of the secret pressure that was exerted on potential advertisers, who “unexpectedly” had to stop working with Moskovskiy Korrespondent. They had to stop because it was too “dicey”.
Under these conditions, any further publication of the newspaper would have been a futile endeavour from the business standpoint. We do not want to mislead anyone, however: this was only part of the reason for shutting down the newspaper. Moskovskiy Korrespondent had a chance of overcoming its objective economic difficulties and winning a mass readership. This, however, would have required the newspaper to become a standard of objective information, a model of something commonly referred to as “journalistic integrity”.
Regrettably, this did not happen. The newspaper sank to the level of publishing rumours, “sensational” news stories backed up by nothing at all and of the lowest calibre. Furthermore, I now know that one of the most controversial pieces of gossip was custom-made and was printed in Moskovskiy Korrespondent as part of a personal vendetta against me. The chief editor frankly admitted that the editors might have been “taken in”. That was the last straw.
Two lessons must be learned from all of this. The first is for the authorities. The Russian media market, especially on the local level, must be free of administrative pressure. This is an essential condition for the development of truly independent news media, especially print media.
The second lesson is for the journalistic community. Everyone knows the wording of the law on the media, according to which the editors are responsible for published material. No one gives a second thought to what this “responsibility” entails, however. As a rule, it means the possibility of defamation suits filed by the people offended by news stories.
In addition, there is the moral side of the matter. I think journalists and editors should take a more conscientious approach to articles, especially in the case of rumours about the personal lives of citizens. Many things are also written on walls. They must learn to distinguish between information of public interest and phoney “tips” and “scoops” intended to hurt and defame people.
P.S. I would advise the chief editors of some newspapers and the federal and Moscow “career officials”, who are planning to dance on my grave, to become more familiar with the works of the great journalist Mark Twain, who made this famous remark after his obituary was published in the New York Journal: “The rumours of my death have been greatly exaggerated”. Force a fool to pray and he will smash his forehead. They should not think they are on the same level as the people they are serving with their incendiary comments, “resolute condemnations” and inspections. Everything will be sorted out in time.