Calling Klebnikov’s Death a Grudge Killing May Be Just Describing Tip of Iceberg

(Center for Defense Information, Johnson’s Russia List, July 13, 2004)

By William Dunkerley

It’s far too simplistic to explain away Paul Klebnikov’s murder as a grudge killing. That’s what Boris Berezovsky intimated with his trivializing utterance that “Somebody clearly did not like the way he [Klebnikov] operated and decided to sort it out with him, Russian-style.” After all, orchestrating such a high-profile execution would be quite a risk to undertake for no reason other than to settle a score.

Rather than glomming on to Berezovsky’s retro-looking conclusion, its worth exploring a more forward-searching scenario. Consider this: Russia has been a country in which propagandists, private and public, have held a monopolistic lock on the media from the inception of the Russian Federation. Without major exception, there is no place to which Russians can turn to receive a truly consumerresponsive news product. Russian media are replete with paid-for stories, euphemistically called “hidden advertising.”

Two years ago, the Putin administration removed the legal impediments Yeltsin had instituted that stymied the emergence of press freedom. But until Paul Klebnikov came along with Forbes Russia, no one displayed such bold courage to venture down the newly opened path, a divergence from the corrupt media pluralism that has dominated the Russian scene all these years. It was a real breakthrough.

Was Klebnikov’s death intended as revenge against Klebnikov? Or was it to keep the Russian people from getting a taste of what competent, reader-centered journalism is really like?

The Russian magazine Ekspert recently carried a story that asserts that the Russian economy won’t support consumer-responsive media until 2008 (JRL 8281). That’s nonsense. From my own observations, I project that any Russian city with at least 200,000 population already has potentially enough economic competition for advertising to support multiple media outlets not subservient to political or commercial overlords.

Upon launching Forbes-Russia, Klebnikov proclaimed “The era of so called bandit-capitalism is already in the past.” What’s needed now is for more Russians to share that vision, and for the Putin administration to once-and-for-all round up all the lingering bandits with utter disregard to cronyism.

Klebnikov himself personified the fact that the era of consumer-responsive journalism is at hand. But, his murder dramatizes how important it is that the Putin administration protect those who pursue this vision from the established media thuggery who seek to stifle the introduction to the Russian people of an alternative to the entrenched propaganda organs.

The Russian Media Fund ( is a project seeking to marshal the efforts of Russia’s major advertisers toward this goal. They too are being ripped off by the existing corrupt pluralism that reigns supreme in the media. Three quarters of advertisers’ money is being wasted on exposing advertising messages to people with no discretionary money to buy what is advertised. What’s more, advertisers have no alternative but to advertise in publications that so outrageously flout consumer interests and betray reader trust, that a wide majority of Russians are calling for outright censorship of the media!

Perhaps Paul Klebnikov’s death can focus everyone’s interest on the imperative of ridding Russia of its deplorable system of corrupt media pluralism, and on ushering in a long-overdue era of honest journalism that is disseminated by media outlets which are truly independent, deserving of people’s respect and confidence, and of advertisers’ rubles. Wouldn’t that be a fitting legacy!

William Dunkerley (wd [at] publishinghelp [dot] com) is a media business analyst and consultant based in New Britain, Connecticut. He has worked extensively in Russia and other post communist countries.