Russian bloggers force mainstream media climbdown

is Russian media analyst for BBC Monitoring.

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Top Russian business daily Kommersant has been left with egg on its face after being forced to retract a clumsy attempt to discredit anti-corruption campaigner Aleksey Navalnyy.

The episode appears to be an illustration of the power of the Blogosphere to police the behaviour of the mainstream media.

On 10 March, an article appeared in Kommersant's metallurgy supplement under the title "Pipeline gutters". Its clear purpose was to discredit claims made by Navalnyy in his blog last November about large-scale fraud at the state-owned pipeline company Transneft.

The post attracted huge interest and helped to further boost Navalnyy's reputation as the scourge of corruption in Russia.

The Kommersant (above) article, attributed to a certain Yelena Sorokina, suggested that Navalnyy's allegations were either nothing new or else slapdash exaggerations meant to appeal to "non-specialist journalists, students and marginal politicians".

It also insinuated that Navalnyy was working in the interests of foreign powers. It stressed that his anti-corruption website was on an "American server" and that his blog was part of the "American social network LiveJournal".

LiveJournal is a blogging platform controlled by two Russian owners, one of which is the Kommersant Publishing House. Nor was this the only error in the piece.

The article also stated that Transneft was under no obligation to publish details of an internal investigation into allegations of fraud in its dealings because it is "not an open joint-stock company, that is, it is not a public company". This is untrue, as can be seen from a quick glance at the Transneft website.

The article appears to have been a classic example of the 'zakazukha' or smear-to-order.

All of this might have gone largely unnoticed had its existence been confined to the inside pages of a little-read supplement. However, it also appeared on Kommersant's website, which allowed Russia's army of ever-vigilant bloggers to get their teeth into it.

"SHAME on the corrupt Kommersant!" railed liberal activist Ivan Simochkin.

Radio host Yuriy Pronko appeared more sad than angry, as he blogged: "Today the newspaper Kommersant has changed from a solid publication into a piece of ass-wipe."

Navalnyy was incredulous. Under an extract from the article, he wrote: "Without using Google or [Russian search engine] Yandex, try to guess the publication where this article appeared. I bet you can't."

Kommersant's senior management moved quickly to limit the damage.

In a post on his blog, Demyan Kudryavtsev, the director-general of the publishing house, issued an unconditional apology to Navalnyy and the newspaper's readers for the article's "series of factual errors" and its "unacceptable 'Soviet' tone". He added that Kommersant was terminating its relationship with the article's freelance author, that the editor of the metallurgy supplement had been reprimanded, and that the article had been removed from Kommersant's website.

Kudryavtsev also said that Navalnyy would be given the opportunity to respond in one of Kommersant's supplements.

Navalnyy was magnanimous: "I know very well how difficult and unpleasant it is for a big and cool newspaper like Kommersant to write retractions and apologies likes this. And that is why, in this situation, I very much appreciate the behaviour of Kommersant as a whole and Kudryavtsev in particular."

Others were less forgiving. Opposition activist Roman Dobrokhotov said the very fact that the newspaper had allowed a "dzhinsa" or PR promo masquerading as journalism to appear on its pages was a "powerful blow to its reputation".

Pronko was also unconvinced by Kudryatsev's response, which he said was only meant to satisfy those who "are not au fait with the realities of journalism".

Yevgeniya Albats, editor of opposition magazine New Times, was left wondering "who placed the article in the newspaper and why?".

A partial answer to Albats' question was given by Natalya Dashkovskaya, one of the editors of Kommersant's metallurgy supplement. She told the pro-government website Vzglyad that it was the supplement's editor-in-chief, Vladislav Dorofeyev, who had "insisted the material be published". Dashkovskaya said that she herself had had "doubts" about it.

So who is Yelena Sorokina, the putative freelance author of the article? Another article under her name appeared in the metallurgy supplement the same day, but there appears to be no further information about her. Opposition blogger Oleg Kozyrev was not alone in doubting her very existence. "I think that 'Yelena Sorokina' is in fact a bearded hack who hangs around Transneft," he blogged.

There is also the question of why it was Kudryavtsev, the director-general of the publishing house, and not the editor-in-chief of the Kommersant newspaper, Mikhail Mikhaylin, who issued the apology. After all, surely Mikhaylin who is responsible for the content of the newspaper and its supplements rather than Kudryavtsev.

The incident also illustrates the shifts of power and influence on the media scene in Russia.

First, it shows the authority commanded by Navalnyy and the fact that he cannot be attacked with impunity.

Second, it demonstrates the ability of the online community to police the activities of major players in the mainstream media. None of Kommersant's rivals on the newsstands touched the story. It was left to bloggers to hold the paper to account.

For media commentator Andrey Miroshnichenko, the episode was an illustration of how the online community can act as what he calls a "viral editor".

"It was the viral editor, operating as a censor, which banned the article," he wrote on arts website

Miroshnichenko also believes that the appearance of a questionable article like this in a supplement of such a well-respected newspaper as Kommersant may be a sign of how the print media are responding to pressures both from a troubled economic outlook and the growing influence of social media. They are, he suggested, "gradually drifting towards being service bureaus for marketing and propaganda as the former business model, which gave media if not independence then at least the possibility of independence, withers away".

Stephen Ennis is Russian media analyst for BBC Monitoring.

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