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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Corruption in the Press

During the last year the first reports of corruption in Russian journalism have begun to surface. Now, virtually all serious newspapers are writing about it, especially about corruption in the television industry. Although we still have not reached the heart of the matter, at least the problem has become a subject of public discussion. Every professional journalist has run into corruption on the job, at the least hearing about it from colleagues. However, none of our investigative journalists have ever focused their attention on corrupt fellow journalists. For one thing, it is taken as an axiom that bribe-taking is very difficult to prove. Therefore, it is argued, it would be impossible to back up any journalistic claims with material evidence for investigations and trials -- although, for example, last year an official of the Security Ministry reported that as many as 80 percent of all reports in the Russian press have been "written to order" in one way or another. Second, professional solidarity plays a certain role here. It is awkward to expose one's own comrades. Ironically, only communist journalists are writing about "the sellout of the democratic press." Third, in the world of journalism -- heterogeneous, dynamic and democratic -- it is fashionable to have a superficially cynical attitude toward one's own work, and it is easy for the aggressive "sharks of the rotary press" to persuade themselves that corruption is really just "commercial work" or, at worst, "hidden advertising" and bribes are simply ordinary honorariums. In reality, bribe-taking among journalists is not only extremely common, it has become a serious problem and its effect -- although indirect -- is considerably more dangerous than, for example, the effect of corruption in the city administration. But why has journalistic corruption suddenly become a topic of discussion? After all, during the perestroika years from 1986 to 1990, the struggle against corruption in general was one of the favorite topics of glasnost. Perhaps there was no corruption at that time in the newspapers or on television? Compared to what exists now, there was not. Right up to 1991, journalists were one of the privileged groups in society since they were really working for the party. The complete ideological compromise that all Soviet journalists had to make -- itself a transfigured form of corruption -- essentially occupied the place of today's "hidden advertising." Apartments, cars, trips abroad, the best sanatoriums: Not every bribe-taking journalist -- and far from every bribe-giver -- these days has the advantages that the average worker, even those with reputations as "honest" journalists, at Izvestia or Literaturnaya Gazeta once had. The period of 1990-91 was the shining hour for Russian journalism. Journalists honestly spoke out against party power and published caricatures, devastating articles and conversations with dissidents. During this period, for example that Komsomolskaya Pravda, the mouthpiece of the Young Communists' League, published Alexander Solzhenitsyn's programmatic article "Rebuilding Russia." At the same time, the potential bribe-giver took shape. The weakness and the undeveloped nature of pre-perestroika journalism were preconditioned by corruption and the lack of independent economic and political structures. With liberalization came the appearance of a great number of political groups and independent enterprises -- all of which were keenly interested in advertising. In January 1992, two decisive catastrophes occurred: the liberalization of prices and the collapse of the Soviet, party-based state that had protected journalists. In the course of just half a year, journalists were transformed, in terms of their social status, from demi-gods to something between metro janitors and retired police captains. It is impossible to describe briefly the energy of the psychological, moral and economic collisions that shook the world of the Russian journalist in 1992. I will simply note that as a result of these shocks, the staffs of several leading newspapers and television companies fell apart and a number of new, openly commercial structures appeared. That is what happened on the social level. On the level of the individual, the suddenly dispossessed and completely lost journalists who were already disposed to take bribes and the "new Russians," who were ready to give them, finally embraced one another. Since that time, I have personally received nearly a dozen (at least one every two months) blatant proposals to write reviews for new films or articles about computer companies or about politicians for considerable money (usually, in dollars). Last year, for example, when Moskovskiye Novosti was paying 2000 rubles per typed page, I was offered as much as $100 to write a positive review of a new firm for that paper. Journalists find themselves at the junction of three roads. Either they can honestly work for their editors (and not be able to feed their children), or they can earn money on the side (usually by working for foreign news organizations), or they can take bribes in one form or another. Working for Western clients also has its ugly, corrupt side when journalists uncover information in the name of their own organizations and then sell it elsewhere. During perestroika, journalists played an enormous role, if not as the conscience of the nation, then at least as the medium by which the truthful word became valuable. Now many journalists have put the authority that the press accumulated then up for quick sale to the highest bidder. When the communists and fascists rail about the "selling out of the democratic press," I have no defense. I have not heard of a single case of a journalist being fired for writing a piece to order. To say nothing of a trial. Oleg Pshenichny is a freelance journalist. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.