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.''
There have been numerous other reports of Russian journalists being attacked or murdered. The most recent alleged mafia-related killing was in June when the body of Yuri Soltys, a crime reporter for the Interfax news agency, was found badly beaten on the platform of a provincial train station.
``When you are talking about people with millions and millions of dollars, they just look at a journalist like an enemy,'' says Borovik, who routinely publishes fictitious bylines and provides bodyguards for his reporters who cover the mafia.
Last year, a Top Secret journalist approached mobster Otari Kvantrishvili with a request to write a book about him, Borovik says. Kvantrishvili was gunned down this spring by a sniper.
``Kvantrishvili told her: `If you want to write about my past life, you will never finish your book,' '' Borovik recalled. So the magazine instead published a long article about six leading Russian clans - including the Kvantrishvili family - with names and minor details slightly changed.
``Five days later I got a phone call from Otari,'' Borovik says. `` `Artyom, why did you make such a mistake?' he asked. `Do you know what we do with correspondents who dare write things about that? We come to the newspaper, and I listen attentively to what the correspondent and editor have to say. And believe me, after such a conversation they dare not write anything about me ever again.' ''
Borovik chuckles. ``It's easy to talk about Kvantrishvili,'' he says, ``because he's dead.''
But the mafia does not limit itself to threats. Hidden advertising, according to some journalists, is financed largely by the organized crime groups.
``We're only one step away from advertising criminal structures, and since the boundaries of ethics have already been passed, people may not even notice when that last step is taken,'' Russian Journalists' Union spokesman Eduard Sagalayev says.
The Union has put forward a new ethics code to combat the problem. But no Russian journalist has yet to be punished for the practice. ``I regularly receive invitations from people asking me to write an article about them for money,'' says Alexander Minkin, a prominent journalist for the respected Moskovsky Komsomolets daily. ``Write about our bank, they say, and we'll pay you.''
On one occasion, a local politician offered him dollars in return for a favorable article. ``I told him I didn't like him and that I would only write a negative article,'' Mr. Minkin says. ``He said he would pay anything for the publicity.'' During last winter's parliamentary election campaign, television chiefs complained prominent politicians attempted to bribe them in return for extra air space.
The problem is compounded by low journalistic salaries, which can be as low as 40,000 rubles ($20) monthly. ``Journalists in this country are in the position of prostitutes,'' says writer Artyom Troitsky. ``They do the work for which they get paid.''
He says television journalists are the most affected, since television is the most powerful medium in post-Communist society. Many broadcasts are financed by Russia's private banks, which now number more than 2,000 and have financial interests to push.
``Bribery and payola on TV are really tremendous,'' Mr. Troitsky says. ``I would say that maybe as much money is invested in bribery as in the state budget.''
Publisher Sauer agrees. ``This is standard fare. We had so many offers from people offering to write about Cosmopolitan, and they all expect us to pay for it.''