Mafia Thwarts `Golden Age' of Russian Media Journalists Enjoyed New Freedoms Following the Collapse of Communism, but the New Business Environment Is Proving as Restrictive as the Old System

Article excerpt

EARLIER this year, a mysterious fax began appearing in the offices of Russia's leading politicians, bankers, and businessmen.

For a specific fee, the fax read, influential politicians, personalities, or commercial enterprises could be publicized in articles in any of Russia's 15 leading newspapers and magazines. A price list followed.

Such a scam may seem incredible at first. But when news of the fax leaked to Russia's top newspaper editors and publishers, they were not surprised. "If you read a Russian newspaper or magazine and there is a story about a business or a shop, then 9 times out of 10 that story has been paid for," says Derk Sauer, who publishes both the Russian Cosmopolitan magazine and the Moscow Times English-language daily. "Since most businesses are run by the mafia, they are influencing the media."

Russian journalism, for decades constrained by Communist Party dictates, enjoyed a golden age at the beginning of the 1990s. Exposes of wrongdoing at the top of society, taboo-breaking reports on the country's ills, and exclusives were the norm.

But newspapers' financial difficulties and the dog-eat-dog realities of business Russian-style are proving to be just as restrictive as the old controls.

Reports of widespread corruption in Russian journalism began to surface earlier this year, following accusations that the country's new breed of politicians - and some of the old-style ones - were demanding dollars for interviews. Now the stakes are higher. Some journalists have paid for their hard-hitting investigative reporting with their lives.

Seeking to promote their own financial interests, Russian mafia groups are vying for control over what appears in the mass media, from television to radio to newspapers. Their tactics range from placing "hidden advertisements," or ads disguised as "objective" articles, which promote their businesses, to blackmail and threats of violence.

In a case several months ago, a Russian disc jockey at one of Moscow's most-popular radio stations received a series of ominous phone calls by members of what he calls the "music mafia."

The anonymous callers made the deejay an offer they thought he couldn't refuse. If he would regularly play songs by a group of recording artists they wanted to promote, they said, they would leave him in peace. If not, they would firebomb the station. No bombings have yet occurred, but station employees now work in fear.

"It's the worst thing that could ever happen, because there is nobody to turn to," says a colleague at the station, who asked not to be identified. "You can't go to the police, and the only person you can run to to take care of it is another member of a mafia gang."

Artyom Borovik, editor-in-chief of Sovershenno Sekretno (Top Secret), a monthly tabloid-style newspaper with a circulation of about 2 million, says every journalist on his newspaper has been either threatened or blackmailed by the mafia.

Mr. Borovik recently was involved in a suspicious car accident when his automobile was rammed by two foreign cars, and his wife, a television anchor, was severely beaten in their apartment entranceway. The mafia was responsible for both gangland-style incidents, he says.

"In the old days, you simply could not write anything critical about the Central Committee of the {Communist} Party or the power structures like the KGB and the Ministry of the Interior," Borovik says. "But today the situation has changed, and the certain themes you cannot write about - risking not only losing your job but your life - are basically the mafia and corruption among high-ranking officials. …


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