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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Concerted PR Effort

Telecoms firm Telenor is trying to increase its stake in VimpelCom, Russia's second largest mobile provider. Telenor is controlled by the Norwegian state, and Norway is a member of NATO. Mobile telecommunications is a strategic industry. Conclusion: NATO is trying to control Russia's strategic industries. This must be stopped.

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Articles making exactly these arguments, figures and all, appeared on the same day, June 16, with no connection to any news event. They were printed in Izvestia, Komsolmolskaya Pravda and Parlamentskaya Gazeta. A few days later, on June 21, an article appeared in Rossiiskaya Gazeta with the same set of facts and figures but now citing other publications in the Russian press.

It's hard to see these simultaneous attacks as anything but a smear campaign commissioned by competitors, especially if you've read an article about this kind of journalistic practice by Yelena Rykovtsevaya, my wife, in the April issue of Bolshaya Politika, analyzing dozens of campaigns organized in Komsomolskaya Pravda, Izvestia and Moskovsky Komsomolets. Not a single editor at these newspapers, who were all asked to comment, denied involvement in this practice. In fact, the editor of Komsomolskaya Pravda said this type of activity was widespread: "There isn't a single media outlet where PR agents can't place stories today."

The Telenor case is so run of the mill that it's hardly worth mentioning. But there is one element that should qualify it for a spot in "Ripley's Believe It or Not." The Norwegian company A-pressen owns a blocking stake in Komsomolskaya Pravda, and Telenor is a major stakeholder in A-pressen. So if my conjectures are correct and this is a smear campaign, Komsomolskaya Pravda has involved A-pressen in discrediting one of its own shareholders. And their methods are illegal, since Russian legislation clearly requires that some distinction be made between editorial content and advertisements.

During the World Association of Newspapers conference held in Moscow earlier this month, many of the Russian participants called for greater foreign investment in existing Russian media companies. Well we can forget about that now. Forget about the fact that this isn't great for the investment climate in Russia as a whole -- this means a competitor can apparently "take out a contract" on any investor in our press.

The harm done by paid journalism is obvious. It constitutes the outright deception of readers, as it clearly damages the reputation of the mass media and lowers its credibility. It also makes legitimate advertising less effective.

But it does further damage. The Russian government is the founder of Rossiiskaya Gazeta. Imagine, a state body suspected of illegal activities! Or take Gazprom-Media. After the company bought Izvestia, my former employer, it was clear to me that the newspaper was flooded with paid-for articles. Doesn't this kind of unsavory practice cast a shadow on the reputation of Gazprom, its parent company?

Just thinking about what it does to President Vladimir Putin's reputation is painful. Imagine what he felt as he sat in front of the world's newspaper-industry elite at the opening ceremony of the WAN conference and listened to charges of corruption in the press. But perhaps he was consoled by the fact that foreigners may finally get what is happening here: When you have mass media that are willing to do anything for money, the only way to deal with them is to intimidate them and take them under control.

Under Stalin, participants in these types of activities would have been labeled enemies of the people. Today, we have to cure it with market methods. There is no hope that the press will straighten itself out on its own. The cure should be administered by those who have been framed by the mass media using their own money: state bodies, politicians, investors and advertisers. That is, by the stakeholders themselves.

Alexei Pankin is a freelance journalist in Moscow.