A Disturbing Story of Leaks and Fantasies

We may never know what exactly prompted the relatively unknown daily tabloid Moskovsky Korrespondent to publish a salacious article claiming that President Vladimir Putin had left his wife and planned to marry Alina Kabayeva, a 24-year-old former Olympic champion in rhythmic gymnastics.

In a country where leaks to the press are routinely used to discredit public figures, journalists are regularly accused of blackmail and authorities systematically cow independent-minded media, the circumstances that produced this curious piece of journalism remain too murky to draw any definitive conclusions about the meaning of the whole affair. But taken at face value, there are a few troubling aspects to the series of events surrounding the article.

First of all, the newspaper did not identify its sources, a practice that, while defendable in certain circumstances, was unacceptable given that it did not even bother to call the Kremlin for comment. The newspaper ignored basic rules of reporting.

Second, the speed with which Moskovsky Korrespondent's publisher announced that the newspaper would be shutting down -- ostensibly for financial reasons -- sends the wrong signal to officials, the media and society at large.

A Kremlin pool reporter at a news conference finally asked Putin last week to comment on the report. Not only did Putin deny the story, he also attacked "those who, with their snotty noses and erotic fantasies, prowl into others' lives."

One day later, the publisher announced that he was suspending the newspaper because it had been losing money and needed to be reformatted and reopened. The publisher denied that Putin's criticism had anything to do with the decision, though it seems like a strange coincidence that the announcement came so shortly after the remarks.

In less convoluted circumstances, the message would seem clear: Media outlets in Russia can be closed down or "suspended" simply for angering a top official. Why, after all, waste time with a libel suit or demand a correction when merely venting one's anger publicly is enough to tame a publisher fearful of having his business -- or other assets -- targeted by authorities.

The majority owner of the newspaper, billionaire businessman Alexander Lebedev, said he was on a fishing trip when the article was published.

Lebedev is an owner of Novaya Gazeta, perhaps the country's most fearless investigative newspaper. Owning two papers that have angered the Kremlin might be too much for him. But if Lebedev does want to run them as businesses rather than political weapons, he would do well to give his daily another chance to develop as a newspaper.

As for its reporters and editors, they should realize that whatever their reasons for publishing the marriage story, such reporting does a disservice to readers, gives the press a bad name and leaves them vulnerable to libel suits and selective justice.