PR firm stings Russia's media

The Union of Journalists has scheduled a roundtable for March 10-11, to create an internal watchdog body.

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In the wake of a sting operation that caught 13 leading Russian publications printing zakazukha, or bought-and-paid-for news articles, at least some red-faced members of Russia's media community are calling for urgent action to clean up their corruption-riddled profession.

"This is a wakeup call for all journalists," says Igor Yakovenko, deputy head of the Russian Union of Journalists. "We have to get together and learn to police ourselves before the state steps in and does it for us."

The bombshell dropped last week, when a small Moscow public relations firm, Promaco, revealed it had sent a press release about the "grand opening" of a new electronics shop named Traffic Light to 21 newspapers.

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The most basic reporting duty - a visit to the site - would have turned up that the store's downtown Moscow address was a garbage-strewn empty lot. As for the rest of the richly detailed press release, the "well-known" company that purportedly built the store was nonexistent, and the "renowned Canadian and American brand names" of goods for sale were fictitious.

Thirteen papers, including some of Moscow's most prestigious dailies, agreed to run a version of the release in the guise of regular news - in exchange for fees ranging from $135 to $2,000.

The number of papers that fell for the sting - more than half - probably understates the scale of the problem, experts say. "Zakazukha is a routine practice in the Russian media," says Andrei Richter, director of the independent Center for Law and Mass Media in Moscow. "Now we have a dramatic illustration, which will hopefully lead to pressure for change."

Promaco says it launched the operation out of desperation. "We have discovered that it is impossible to compete in Russia's public relations market by obeying the law," says Kiril Simonov, the agency's director. "We can't keep our clients, when all we can offer is to place ads, while competitors can provide any number of favorable news stories for them."

Most Russian journalists were trained in Soviet schools and went to work expecting to be told what to write. But Communist reformer Mikhail Gorbachev introduced his glasnost, or openness, policy in the mid-1980s, hoping that a free press would expose social and political evils and generate public support for change. Journalists enthusiastically turned the late-Soviet media into a wild free-for-all that was intensely interesting, if not always professional. But somehow, during the harsh market reforms of the past decade, much of the media has lapsed into a state of political obedience and commercial venality.

"People will say the problem is poverty, but actually journalists are among the better-paid workers in Russia today," says Leonid Radzhikhovsky, a columnist for the daily Segodnya, which didn't fall for Promaco's sting. "I blame the Soviet tradition. Journalists were always treated like part of the elite, but never made personally responsible for their work.... It's not a matter of money, it's morality. Change must come from within our profession."

But some of the tricked papers are defiant. Igor Golembiovsky, editor of the national daily Noviye Izvestia, called Promaco's sting "a cheap publicity stunt." When pressed, he admitted Vlada Trubkina, purported author of his paper's 500-word boxed article, does not exist. "All Russian newspapers publish advertising information, as opposed to straightforward ads," he says.

Of five newspapers contacted for this report, only one could produce a real person to match the byline on their Traffic Light coverage. Alexei Kubassov, a computer operator at the Moscow daily Moskovsky Komsomolets, said he knew nothing about the article published in his name.

Ironically, among those enraged at Promaco is Russia's Press Ministry, the body charged with enforcing press laws and ethical standards. "Nothing positive is accomplished by this kind of grandstanding," ministry spokesman Yuri Akimshin said of the operation. "Most Russian media outlets are on the brink of bankruptcy and until the advertising market develops ... it will not be possible to address this problem."

But some critics argue the Russian state has no interest in implementing reform. "A weak and dependent media is a pliable media," says Mr. Yakovenko.

The Union of Journalists, which has a membership of 70,000, has called a roundtable meeting of all leading Russian media to be held March 10-11, which it hopes will lead to the creation of an internal watchdog body. "It's extremely urgent that we hammer out a code of ethics for our profession, and provide the means to police it," says Yakovenko.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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