Press Freedom in Russia The Newspaper Loved in the West, Hated at Home

Reporters at Novaya Gazeta need strong nerves -- four of the Moscow-based newspaper's journalists have already been murdered. But the paper has powerful friends, including Mikhail Gorbachev and oligarch Alexander Lebedev.

By in Moscow

Olga seemed simultaneously awestruck and wary as she ran her fingers across the envelope. The sender seemed to be important: the "Presidential Administration." Was it mail from the Kremlin? "But the envelope felt strange," says Olga, who is secretary to the editor-in-chief of the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta.

When she finally opened the envelope, she felt something cold and leathery inside: the severed ears of a donkey. "One needs strong nerves here," she says. Four of the newspaper's journalists have already been murdered, and one of its attorneys was shot dead in broad daylight.

The site where lawyer Stanislav Markelov and reporter Anastasia Baburova were murdered in Moscow: Staff at Novaya Gazeta need strong nerves.

The site where lawyer Stanislav Markelov and reporter Anastasia Baburova were murdered in Moscow: Staff at Novaya Gazeta need strong nerves.

The donkey ears were followed a few days later by a bloody piece of meat. This time there was no return address on the envelope. And then a peculiar man offered the editor-in-chief a bribe.

When the paper investigated the matter, it discovered that an activist with a group called Nashi was behind the mysterious acts. Nashi, a Kremlin-controlled youth organization, had previously staged protests in front of the paper's editorial offices and launched a campaign against Novaya Gazeta. A short time later, President Dmitry Medvedev made a point of giving the paper an interview.

The situation is unclear. On the one hand, the newspaper, which is published three times a week and has a respectable circulation of 270,000, is the object of the wrath of Moscow's powerful elite, which finds itself repeatedly criticized in its pages. On the other hand, Novaya Gazeta is suddenly enjoying protection from officials at the highest levels of government.

What exactly is the role of Novaya Gazeta, which is now Russia's best-known newspaper abroad? Is Novaya, as its readers call it, a bastion of democratic free speech? German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the center-left Social Democratic Party's chancellor candidate in Germany's September elections, has announced plans to visit the editorial offices this week. And there is even a chance that US President Barack Obama could look in on the paper in early July.

Swimming with the Sharks

It is shortly before noon when Sergei Sokolov, sounding like a drill sergeant at a military barracks, yells "editorial conference" into the hallway. Once, while on vacation, he sent a postcard to his colleagues with the words "I'm swimming with sharks" written on it. The postcard was pinned up on the bulletin board in the editorial offices. Next to it, someone wrote: "The poor sharks."

Sokolov is the ideal second-in-command. He channels the flow of ideas coming from editor-in-chief Dmitry Muratov without challenging his authority. When Muratov distributes story ideas to his 60-member editorial staff, it can sound like a conspiracy to bring down the government -- or at least a few cabinet ministers.

One of the newspaper's articles revealed that an executive with the state-owned bank, as well as influential ministers, had allegedly built luxury villas along the Moskva River -- in a nature reserve where there was in fact a ban on construction. In a recent issue of the paper, Roman Shleinov, one of the stars in the paper's collection of exceptionally talented and daring journalists, exposed a network of companies that he claimed represented a connection between a mafia group and relatives of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

Shleinov has also sharply criticized the machinations of energy giant Gazprom, and he has even described the kidnappings and blackmail of business leaders by officers of the FSB, the Russian domestic intelligence agency. The revelations were remarkable, but the reactions? Practically nonexistent.

"We could print a photo that shows Putin accepting a suitcase of cash. No one would be interested," he says. Shleinov is a Sisyphus of investigative journalism -- a Sisyphus under pressure.

Gaining access to the news is not a problem in Russia the way it is in China, for example. Although television is largely state-controlled, the range of opinions in newspapers and on the Internet is broader than, say, in Germany. The country suffers from a completely different sort of affliction: Even the biggest, most scandalous exposés lead to no consequences whatsoever.

Free and influential media ought to be an important tool in fighting excessive corruption. But in Russia the media lack the necessary powers. Boris Yeltsin, as Russia's first president, compelled the attorney general's office to respond within 10 days to corruption charges brought by the media. His successor Putin promptly revoked Yeltsin's order shortly after taking office.

'Find Out Who's Involved'

Novaya Gazeta editor-in-chief Muratov is looking at one of his senior editors, who has just received word of a spectacular accident on Kutuzovsky Prospekt, a street that leads to the Kremlin. A 20-year-old has crashed his new Ferrari while traveling at 200 kilometers per hour (125 mph). The father of the young man is apparently a member of the executive board of a group of banks.

For Muratov, the story is yet another example of the excesses of what he calls "an elite that places itself above the law." "Find out who's involved!" he tells his editors. "And I'll ask Lebedev."

For a moment, it appears that Alexander Lebedev, a former member of the Soviet foreign intelligence service and a 30-percent owner of the national airline Aeroflot, is just another of Muratov's many sources within the establishment. In truth, however, the banking magnate is something of a cash machine for Novaya Gazeta.

He has supported the paper since the 1990s. In June 2006, he and former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev acquired a 49-percent stake in Novaya Gazeta, which was on the verge of bankruptcy at the time. The employees owned the rest.

Lebedev bought the employees' shares for about €1.5 million ($2.1 million). Since then, he has injected millions into the money-losing paper every year. No one buys advertising; everyone is fearful of incurring the Kremlin's wrath. "As long as I have money, I will help," says Lebedev, in the opulent reception room of his luxurious mansion near the Foreign Ministry. He is wearing jeans, a designer vest and stylish black sneakers.

The magnate praises his "team of fantastic, courageous journalists," says that his goal is to make the paper the "opinion leader in Russia," and quotes the poet and Stalin critic Osip Mandelstam. He likes to see his editors as part of this tradition of resistance to the throne, and himself as a shining light of press freedom.

But politicians, media executives and journalists in Moscow often have other things to say about Lebedev. For one, they say that the entrepreneur, who lost bids to become the mayor of Moscow and Sochi, the site of the 2014 Winter Olympics, keeps the paper to promote his political ambitions. They also claim that, in the Moscow game of power politics, he has been chosen to keep the inconvenient newspaper under control on Putin's behalf.

Lebedev and Gorbachev reject such claims as "absurd." "Just take a look at the stories in Novaya," says Lebedev. For example, he says, Putin's press czar, Alexei Gromov, was furious when the paper disclosed his alleged business interests in digital television.


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