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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Lure of Filthy Lucre From Dirty Elections

Election season is a jolly old time for the Russian press. In the run-up to election day the press sells its soul to the devil and starts worshipping the golden calf of official campaign advertising and zakazukha -- the lucrative business of printing anything from disguised "advertorials" to smear articles for cash.

And since elections are always going on somewhere, at some level, the media's soul is bought and sold pretty permanently. No sooner had the dust settled in Krasnoyarsk and Nizhny Novgorod than yet another election campaign scandal erupted, this time in Kalmykia.

Incumbent Kalmyk President Kirsan Ilyumzhinov has never been a favorite of the Moscow-based press, which has portrayed him for the most part as the feudal ruler of a lawless kingdom. More recently, however, a wave of articles appeared depicting Ilyumzhinov as a kind, progressive leader. A few newspapers, such as Izvestia, did the honest thing and identified these articles as paid advertising. In Komsomolskaya Pravda, the articles started off as advertising, but toward the end of the campaign they found their way into the news pages. Other newspapers, such as Nezavisimaya Gazeta, were unconcerned with such niceties from the outset.

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A well-known journalist, who has conducted her own research into this problem, told me the following story: "I called one of the top people over at Nezavisimaya Gazeta and asked: 'Am I right in assuming that your newspaper endorses Ilyumzhinov?' He seemed stunned by my question. 'Of course not!' he replied. 'So how are readers supposed to understand all the articles supporting him in your paper?' I asked. 'Don't be a child. Everyone knows perfectly well how things work.' Then I called a bigwig at the Prof-Media holding, which publishes Izvestia and Komsomolskaya Pravda. As a citizen, he said, he was deeply troubled by Komsomolskaya Pravda's behavior, but as a company official he could do nothing to change it. He had no direct influence over the editors, he said. Prof-Media may dream of a time when its publications will run only honest advertisements, but that time is still far off."

It's a sad state of affairs when even those who supposedly outrank editors can do nothing to control their fondness for filthy lucre. But don't lose hope just yet. The European Commission recently gave the Russian Union of Journalists 2 million euros to help it restore order to the mass media over the next two years. The reform campaign includes providing assistance to journalists as they compile a professional code of ethics.

That's pretty rich. About a year ago the "Declaration of Ethical Norms for Journalists During Election Campaigns" was signed with great pomp and ceremony in Krasnoyarsk. The cost of planting articles during the regional parliamentary election that followed went through the roof. The journalists, it seems, sought compensation for the emotional distress associated with violating their own ethical principles. A local observer of the recent gubernatorial election in Krasnoyarsk wrote in Sreda magazine that a significant portion of the Krasnoyarsk mass media openly broke the law in its pursuit of profit, apparently hoping either that law enforcers would take no notice or that the fines levied would be minimal. In some cases, editors summoned before the court to explain their actions readily admitted their guilt, paid the fine and continued to break the law as before.

Those who practice "dirty journalism" and those who battle such practices courtesy of the European taxpayer would both do well to chip in and erect a monument to "negative campaigning," with the inscription: "To Our Benefactor."

P.S. Word has it that the body of murdered Magadan Governor Valentin Tsetkov wasn't even cold before a flood of political consultants -- the media's best friends -- was on its way to the far eastern city. And it's no wonder: The gold-rich region will soon be electing a new governor.

Alexei Pankin is the editor of Sreda, a magazine for media professionals (