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The demise of Moscow's most provocative English-language paper bodes
The demise of Moscow's most provocative English-language paper bodes ill for Dmitry Medvedev's rule of law project.

Normally I would make a point of writing impartially and maintaining a sense of balance in my articles. But I am angry, and for that reason let me state now that I intend to exploit to the full the portion of "opinion" in "opinion and analysis."

The reason for my rage is the closure of a little known bi-weekly publication. Last week it became apparent that the eXile, a Moscow based English-language newspaper, was shutting down. If you don't live in Moscow, you probably don't care, and even if you do you may be glad to see the back of it. But the nature of the closure (the newspaper's investors deserted it after its offices were inspected by a government agency) raises a lot of questions about press freedom in Russia generally, and the status of the English-language press in particular. But most of all, it raises questions about President Dmitry Medvedev's loudly proclaimed support for the rule of law.

In the interests of balance, let me put my cards on the table immediately: I liked the eXile. I think it is, or was (defiance and hope compel me to use the present tense. Realism makes me use the past), far and away the best of the half-dozen English-language papers in Moscow, and I resent being deprived of it.

Its coverage was refreshing and insightful, and it ran stories that other news sources would not have touched with a bargepole. It was fiercely independent, heaping equal scorn on western Russo-phobia and Russian corruption. It was also startlingly honest (mostly about the faults of others), and its indictments of the vacuity and laziness of much mainstream Western journalism about Russia were painfully accurate.

It was also mildly pornographic, almost certainly libelous, and unnecessarily insulting to almost all it wrote about, or read it. It was crude, misogynistic, racist and immature. But my God, it was funny.

Maybe the eXile could not have survived as long as it did anywhere but Russia. In a country as protective of its morals and trigger-happy with litigation as the United States, it wouldn't have lasted five minutes. There will be those who seize on this truth to defend the paper's murder. Why should Russia tolerate a foreign newspaper that would have been sued out of existence in its editor's native land? Why indeed. But then why did Russia tolerate it for eleven years? And what has caused the authorities to suddenly invoke a law that they chose to ignore for over a decade?  

Russia is a famously dangerous country in which to be a journalist, and that made it all the more surprising that the eXile was allowed to publish what it did. Every issue you read would make you shake your head and wonder, "How the hell do they get away with this?" But they always did, and two weeks later there it was again, with more misogyny, more American college humor, and more right-on-the-money reportage and commentary about stories "that you just don't touch."

But that resilience, the fact that it just seemed to keep going, and the fact that it survived the Putin presidency's well-known antipathy to press freedom, gave many of its readers the impression that it had some kind of unofficial sanction. The eXile was to be tolerated because it did not publish in Russian, because it was only fortnightly, because its circulation was confined to English speaking expats, because what it wrote was just so damn bizarre. Everyone had a theory about why, but it all boiled down to the same thing: a sense that the Russian authorities would tolerate the expat community's literary proclivities much as they tolerated its sexual proclivities (something famously and extensively covered by the eXile). That view was complacent and mistaken.

As I have been careful to acknowledge, the eXile would have found it difficult to exist in any other country (except perhaps on the top shelves of certain specialist outlets). The editors themselves often hinted that their paper was a relic of the chaos of the 1990s. The demise of this singularly anarchic publication might be taken as another sign of Russia's much vaunted "normalization." I am sure that some will argue just that.

They might have a point, if it were not for the fact that its demise reeks of the same lawlessness that created it. For the eXile is suffering a very Russian death. In America, it is true, it would probably have been sued out of existence, or at least bankrupted by legal fees. Britain's infamously draconian libel laws would have silenced it even earlier. But the eXile is not dying as a result of a court order. Instead, as Mark Ames, the paper's founding editor wrote in a blog for Radar online, an alternative news website, the authorities have simply notified the paper that it has "earned their attention." In this case the notification consisted of the paper being subjected to an "unscheduled audit" from a government agency called the Federal Service for Mass Media, Telecommunications and the Protection of Cultural Heritage. According to the Moscow Times, they were investigating the eXile for violation of article 4 of the Law on Mass Media, which outlaws the promotion of "extremism, pornography or narcotics."          

That, says Mr. Ames, was enough to send all the right messages. Investors disappeared overnight. Contributors are trying to distance themselves from the paper. In short, the great raft of collaborators that keeps a newspaper afloat has been scattered, and the eXile is drowning.   

The Law on Mass Media, incidentally, has been around since 1991, and article four was amended in 1995, 2000 (when the bit about drugs was added), and 2002. The eXile has been cheerfully reviewing massage parlours and chronicling drug and alcohol fuelled excess since 1997. So when Mr. Ames told the Moscow Times that he had "no idea" what had sparked the inspection, he was probably expressing genuine bewilderment.

Arbitrary or not, though, the law is the law. And who knows, maybe this unexpected zeal was sparked by the noble sentiments of Dmitry Medvedev's crusade against "legal nihilism." The inspection itself, telling though it was, is thus far less important than the reaction it provoked.

Legally, the eXile and its partners have nothing to be afraid of. Even if they were found to be in violation of article 4, the most the inspectors could do is issue a warning. Only after a second warning, which would take several months, could they seek the paper's closure through the courts (and a court case, of course, would give the paper a chance to defend itself. And you never know, it might even win). Violation of article four, officially at least, carries no threat of imprisonment or serious fines.

But the guarantees and safeguards of legislation apparently meant nothing to the eXile's financial backers. One sign that the paper had caught the authorities' attention, and they dropped it like it was a red-hot poker. You'd be hard pushed to find a better example of "legal nihilism."

The eXile is being destroyed by fear, a fear that pervades life in Russia, particularly business and political life. That fear is perpetuated both by the arbitrary application of the law and a lack of faith in its protection. That is exactly what President Medvedev pledged to fight when he promised to uphold the "supremacy of law." In fact, he recently ordered the government to draft a law limiting exactly the kind of "unscheduled audits" on small businesses that the eXile fell foul of. It is true that the task is massive, and that these are early days, but the shameful destruction of a brave, if debauched, newspaper is not an auspicious start. 

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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