Saturday, December 09, 2006

Losing the Scoop

In the Wall Street Journal, Guy Chazan writes about the heroic but curiously variegated aspect of Russia’s leading - and some would say only - independent newspaper. The paper nearly closed in the aftermath of the murder of Anna Politkovskaya, who was one of its best-known correspondents, and was the third of the paper’s journalists to lose their lives in recent years. Of the two others, one was bludgeoned to death with a hammer and one died as a result of suspected poisoning. Anna Politkovskaya was shot dead two months ago in the elevator of her apartment block. Now, says Chazan, the paper faces a grim future.

Some excerpts:

From the start, Novaya had a uniquely independent stance. It condemned resident Boris Yeltsin’s shelling of the hard-line Russian parliament in 1993,when all other liberal media backed him. In 1996, an election year, the rest of the Russian press sided with Mr. Yeltsin, but Novaya remained neutral. That earned it respect in journalistic circles, and it was able to poach some of Russia’s top reporters. Circulation rose from 10,000 to 70,000 by the end of 1996 as the paper ran scoop after scoop about graft in the Yeltsin administration.

A series of campaigns also raised its profile and boosted its moral authority. Between 1997 and 1999, its defense correspondent, a Russian army major and decorated Afghan war veteran named Vyacheslav Izmailov, helped free 171 Russian prisoners of war and hostages held by warlords in the rebel region of Chechnya.

However, journalists say that to keep afloat, Novaya Gazeta resorted to a practice endemic in the Russian media — publishing paid-for articles asquerading as news. Mr. Muratov declines to discuss what his paper did but says the entire Russian press engaged in the practice. He insists he “never printed anything that went against the paper’s editorial policy.”

The hodgepodge of styles was often jarring. An issue in November 1998 eatured a hard-hitting account of the murder of Galina Starovoitova, a liberal lawmaker; a feature about the ties between local politics and organized crime in the port of Novorossiisk; and alongside them, an upbeat story about a Moscow bank that funded a memorial in London to Soviet war dead. The head of the bank, billionaire businessman Alexander Lebedev, was one of Novaya’s informal sponsors. Mr. Lebedev denies paying for that particular article but says, “It’s true that I did support them financially, and that their coverage was generally favorable to us.”

Alexei Pankin, a former op-ed editor of the newspaper Izvestia and a friend of Mr. Muratov, says paid articles may have made it possible for Novaya Gazeta journalists to cover the stories that mattered most to them — such as the war in Chechnya — but the practice “no doubt harmed the paper’s reputation.” Novaya Gazeta and other papers were also left vulnerable to allegations of corruption when Mr. Putin began his crackdown on the independent media.

And Novaya’s political coverage was getting it into hot water with the authorities. In the fall of 1999, a series of explosions ripped through apartment blocks in Moscow and two other Russian cities, killing 300 people. The authorities blamed Chechen militants and Mr. Putin sent troops to restore Russian rule in Chechnya. Novaya ran a series of stories describing what it said was evidence the blasts were orchestrated by Russia’s security services. The late Mr. Litvinenko made the same claim — vigorously denied by the Kremlin — after he won political asylum in Britain in 2000.

(hat tips: Robert Amsterdam and chechnya-sl).

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