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Paper Closes After Putin Marriage Story

A Russian tabloid that published a story claiming that President Vladimir Putin had left his wife to marry a 24-year-old former Olympic gymnast suspended operations on Friday, sparking fresh criticism about withering press freedoms in Russia.

"We proved that Russia is not a democracy," Igor Dudinsky, first deputy editor of Moskovsky Korrespondent, which ran the story earlier this month, said Sunday.

On Friday, Putin categorically denied claims made by the tabloid that he was planning to marry former rhythmic gymnast and current State Duma Deputy Alina Kabayeva at a news conference in Sardinia with Italian Prime Minister-elect Silvio Berlusconi.

"There is not one word of truth in what you have said," he told reporters. "I have always reacted negatively to those who, with their snotty noses and erotic fantasies, prowl into others' lives."

Artyom Artyomov, head of billionaire Alexander Lebedev's National Media Company, which publishes the paper, denied that the decision to suspend publication of the magazine was made on political grounds, Interfax reported.

"There is no question about any political background for the decision to suspend the newspaper's publication," he said. "We will decide on a new direction for the newspaper and a business plan for its development in the near future."

Dudinsky, a veteran tabloid journalist and former dissident who spent two years in internal exile in Magadan for angering the Soviet government, disagrees.

"Even a simpleton would understand that it won't reopen in the next 10 years," Dudinsky said. "I think Putin got very angry."

Nevertheless, Dudinksy felt good about running the piece on the untouchable subject of Putin's personal life.

"We let the genie out of the bottle," he said. "I am glad and feel proud."

The personal lives of Russian politicians are rarely reported on and represent a sort of journalistic taboo. The latest incident has led to renewed concerns about press freedoms in Russia, which critics maintain have been severely eroded under Putin.

Oleg Panfilov, Director of the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations in Moscow, said the case was an example of the Kremlin using extralegal methods to pressure the media.

"I think it's very simple with Moskovsky Korrespondent," he said. "The authorities want to hector the yellow press here into not writing the kind of things the yellow press usually writes about in the rest of the world."

Lebedev, who has publicly claimed that he was on a fishing trip when the story was published, came in on Friday to meet with the reporters who wrote the story. The paper's publisher announced the suspension about an hour after Lebedev left, a source in the paper said.

After asking a reporter to call him back Sunday, Lebedev failed to answer his cell phone.

The source said there was no editorial policy against writing sensitive stories about the president at the paper and that just about any topic was considered fair game.

"There was only an agreement not to call the country's top executives 'earthworms,' but we never did that," he said.

Dudinsky admitted that the story had put Lebedev in a difficult situation.

"We kind of set him up," he said.

Still, at least one former Moskovsky Korrespondent reporter defended the decision to suspend publication of the newspaper, which he accused of knowingly reporting false information.

Igor Rotar, a veteran war correspondent for various newspapers, quit his job at Moskovsky Korrespondent in March, claiming that the editorial staff repeatedly encouraged him to lie while working for them.

"When this all happened, I told them that Putin was right," Rotar said. "Every day you lie, and sometimes you have to pay."

(The Moscow Times 21.iv.08)

 
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