Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Checkbook Journalism: Russian-Style

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Checkbook Journalism: Russian-Style

Article excerpt

Russia's new press freedom has spawned an old Western problem: checkbook journalism.

Officials in both the government and private sectors are demanding payment from foreign correspondents in return for interviews -- sometimes as high as $1,000.

While this reporter was in Moscow recently, the Foreign Correspondents Association issued a White Paper, which declared that "An increasing number of officials in different government departments and public institutions are demanding money from journalists for interviews and access to official facilities."

The FCA said it had received more than 30 reports of requests for payoffs, adding, "We believe they are the tip of the iceberg."

The association has sent the White Paper to President Boris Yeltin's press secretary, First Deputy Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar and other government officers.

The White Paper names officials and other news contacts who have sought money from journalists before granting interviews or permitting other news coverage. The White Paper asserts that the practice began after the failed August 1991 coup.

Among those listed are Russian Chief Prosecutor Valentin Stepankov, Minister of Information Mikhail Poltoranin and officials of the Interior and Defense Ministries, the Black Sea Fleet, the Atomic Energy Ministry and the Russian State Committee for Statistics.

Outside of government the fee seekers include representatives of the famed Bolshoi Theater [to watch rehearsals], the Monuments Commission [to take pictures], and the Commonwealth Olympic gymnastic team, the White Paper reported.

"There are officials who have the distorted view that paying for information is a normal practice in capitalism," said FCA president Marco Politi, a correspondent for the Italian newspaper Il Messaggero.

Politi said that some correspondents who refuse to pay are denied interviews but not always.

Brian Friedman, news editor in the Associated Press' Moscow bureau, said the wire service refuses to pay for interviews or documents, some of which are peddled for $100 to $500 to correspondents.

"If push comes to shove, we'll get the documents any way we can," Friedman explained. "We do not believe that foreign correspondents should be charged for information."

However, such resistance from AP and other foreign news organizations apparently has not discouraged officials from trying.

Washington Post correspondent Michael Dobbs wrote in one story from Moscow: "Now a new age appears to have dawned, the age of checkbook journalism. Suddenly everything has become possible in the land of Lenin and Stalin -- as long as the price is right.

"Want to interview the former head of Soviet foreign intelligence? Sure, for $600 or $700. A prisoner on death row? $1,000. The mission control director at the Soviet space center? $200. Russia's top law-enforcement officer? $400. The commander of the Black Sea Fleet? Price negotiable. Want a photograph of the interior of the Lenin Mausoleum, Soviet Communism's most sacred site? $5,000." Dobbs said Post reporters have been asked for payments by government bigwigs ranging from the Ministry of Defense to the former KGB security police.

When a press officer for the Atomic Energy Ministry was told that the Post does not pay for information, the official replied, "Yes, we need British newspapers. In any case, we prefer to deal with rich newsmen," Dobbs related.

Los Angeles Times bureau chief Michael Parks said he did not find the request for news payments "an odd phenomenon by Russian standards. …

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