“Stop digging.” Another text message arrives on the mobile phone of a newspaper staff writer.
The newspaper is Novaya Gazeta. Published twice weekly from Moscow, it is one of the Kremlin’s most vocal critics. The staff writer is investigating the murder of its most famous journalist, Anna Politkovskaya, who was gunned down in the elevator at her home in October 2006.
Novaya’s journalists are used to working under a constant stream of threats; they refuse to crack, even knowing that tomorrow they too could be looking down a gun barrel. After Politkovskaya’s murder, the editor, Dmitryi Muratov, called an emergency meeting, saying no story was worth dying for. His journalists then launched their own investigation into the murder. Novaya has also since stepped up its coverage of human rights abuses in Chechnya, the very subject that is thought to have cost the reporter her life.
Novaya’s coverage has spurred more than 30 criminal investigations since the paper’s inception in 1993. Politkovskaya’s work alone resulted in 15 such cases and more than 20 convictions. “The inquiry into the Russian Foundation for Federal Assets: A telling struggle against corruption or a Kremlin attempt to trade off confiscated goods?” reads a typical headline from the current top story as I speak with Roman Shleinov, the paper’s investigative editor.
Daring and incisive headlines are common currency for Novaya, he says: “We are an opposition newspaper who try to say what is not pronounced on official television or by media owned by businessmen loyal to the Kremlin. We are interested in showing cases of corruption in state agencies, cases of protectionism, and cases of money laundering. We are highly interested in making the connection between Russian business and politics more transparent.”
“In Russia there is a unified system that cannot be destroyed,” he adds. “But we try to remind the public of criminal cases that top officials were, or are, involved in.”
The paper is held together by the support of its two main shareholders, the former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and former KGB intelligence officer Alexander Lebedev, who between them own 49 percent of the paper. The remaining 51 percent belongs to the staff.
Shleinov is keen to stress that Novaya is not a business in the profit-making sense. “Social and political papers in Russia do not make money,” he says, noting that Western media tycoons would never invest in Russia, as they understand the risks are greater than the profitability. But contrary to popular Western belief, you don’t have to be fringe media to criticize the powers that be. “In the central mass media, you can criticize [President Vladimir] Putin and the Kremlin as much as you like—people just don’t pay enough attention to it,” he says.
There are other papers that expose corrupt state agencies, Shleinov says; the business papers Vedomosti (the Record) and Kommersant (the Businessman) are two of them. But the potential for pressure or bribery is ever present.
Novaya itself is no stranger to bribery. “Yes, we have received many offers,” Shleinov says, a wry smile suddenly draining the stoicism from his face. Last year, he says, the paper was offered $240,000 by public relations agents to terminate its probe into ties between a telecommunications company and the state agency Transneft, owner of Russia’s vast oil pipelines. The agents did not say whom they were working for. Novaya did not stop.
Shleinov says the main obstacles facing his paper are not to be found in the vested interests of business or the steel walls of bureaucracy but in the absence of an active readership.
“The majority of people prefer not to notice the situation because they have lots of problems themselves,” he says. “Nobody will pay attention to the topics we are writing about, like corruption by state officials. They don’t think their voices will be heard by anybody. Even when we printed documents from a criminal case where Putin was mentioned, nothing happened.”
It is difficult for ordinary Russians to comprehend how corrupt the business world is, Shleinov explains, because they have no experience of that world. During the transition to private enterprise in the early 1990s, “the usual gangsters” hampered Russian businessmen’s efforts, he says.
He draws a comparison to the United States many years ago, when criminal gangs controlled large spheres of business. The situation is the same in Russia, he says: “Nobody asks where you got your first million.” A lot of businessmen have permanent ties with criminals, he says, because “it is impossible to conduct business without bribes.”
But Novaya is not a business and will not be accepting bribes, Shleinov insists. Nor does it intend to stop digging.
Reprinted from Red Pepper (Aug./Sept. 2007), the independent British magazine of the green and radical left. Subscriptions: £20/yr. in the U.K., £30/yr. in Europe, and £35/yr. elsewhere (6 issues) from 1B Waterlow Rd., London, N19 5NJ, England; www.redpepper.org.uk.