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Russia's Free Press Suffers Jarring Ethical Lapses

THOUGH President Boris Yeltsin has rescinded his controversial decision to censor the press, Russia's newspapers remain shackled in other ways.

Even before the most recent crisis, distortions in Russia's not-so-free market gave the government and big companies undue influence on newspapers, according to Dimitry Murzin, editor in chief of Financial Izvestia.

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The cost of production is so high that papers rely on subsidies from the government or private businesses to survive. ``The person who gives money influences the paper,'' Mr. Murzin says.

According to editors and reporters here, political and economic pressures frequently result in biased reporting.

``The government and advertisers exert a lot of pressure on editors to write favorable articles,'' Murzin says. ``Only a few of the papers resist it.''

Many daily papers sided with either Mr. Yeltsin or parliamentary leaders during the recent crisis. In apparent violation of Russia's new press freedom law, Yeltsin on Oct. 5 closed some 13 newspapers he said supported the now-dissolved Parliament. He imposed censorship on other papers, but stopped after a barrage of international criticism.

In the two years since the downfall of Mikhail Gorbachev, dozens of newspapers have popped up on newstands. Advertising and circulation revenues can sustain papers while they are small, Murzin says. But as they grow in circulation, the cost of newsprint becomes a larger proportion of their expenses. Newsprint prices have increased to reflect the true cost of production. Murzin says newsprint prices have gone up 12 times this year. ``Some small newspapers will certainly go bankrupt,'' he says. ``The larger ones must seek subsidies either from the government or commercial enterprises.'' Financial Izvestia receives funding from both the Financial Times of London and Moscow's Izvestia newspaper.

Other newspapers, such as Kommerzant Daily, have turned to large banks for help. One Kommerzant insider, who declined to be named, says his paper cannot publish ``bad news about certain banks that back the paper. This kind of practice was very familiar to journalists under the old regime. Now only the topics and people are different.''

Even organized crime is getting into the act, according to Mikhail Luguinov, banking and finance editor at Kommerzant Daily. Wealthy criminal syndicates seek to influence public opinion and establish themselves as a legitimate political force.

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Kommerzant itself has come in for a lot of criticism lately. Established as the first independent business newspaper during glasnost years, Kommerzant became known for feisty and high-quality reporting. Today, however, the paper's critics say that some of the Kommerzant reporters are for sale to the highest bidder.

One executive says Kommerzant suddenly shifted coverage of a business dispute after his company stopped paying bribes to reporters. Financial Izvestia's Murzin confirms that advertisers have told him that ``they work with Kommerzant in a special way; they just pay for the articles.''

Mr. Luguinov denies knowledge of specific incidents, but admits that bribes are a problem. ``I do not take bribes personally,'' he says. ``But I can't give you any guarantee what some of my employees'' do. ``I am not in a position to criticize them,'' he continues, because they see so many businessmen making big money illegally.

``The problem exists because we live in a rather poor country,'' he says, and reporters' salaries are low. But Kommerzant reporters earn the equivalent of $200 a month, about four times the pay at some other papers.

``I hope ... Russian newspapers will start receiving finances from normal sources, such as ads and circulation,'' Luguinov says. ``We suffer from difficulties of a transition period.''

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