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Feature Story November 4, 2005
 
Felgenhauer-Gate: Moscow Times editor drops the censored stamp on its own Russian dissident
By Jake Rudnitsky Browse author Email
 
 

Lynn Berry, the editor of the Moscow Times, doesn't want you to read this: or at least I assume that's why, when I called her about this story, she repeatedly answered "No comment," "No comment," and "I have no comment." I thought I was talking to "Scooter" Libby, but no, it was just Lynn, the ambitious, bony, 40-something editor.

Berry was installed as the unthreatening editor - some say editor-for-life - at the MT in 2001 after Independent Media's vertically-challenged publisher Derk Sauer squeezed out earnest leftie Matt Bivens for his fearlessly critical coverage of the Chechen war campaign. The precise phrase Derk used after a December 2000 police raid on Independent Media to admonish then-editor Bivens was, "Tighten up the Chechnya reporting." Eventually, Bivens was put out on the pasture to make way for the more accommodating Berry, and the MT has since been very careful about how many waves it wants to make, and towards whom.

Now, it's Lynn's turn in the spotlight, after a scandal erupted with one of her longest-standing columnists, defense analyst Pavel Felgenhauer. And she didn't like it. In fact, just about the only thing I could get her to comment on was when she told me she'd really appreciate me not using the "off the record" email correspondence with Felgenhauer that he sent to me. But, sorry, Lynn, no-can-do! Maybe it's time for a quick refresher course on the old J-School Rules - all that complacency while overseeing the MT has made you rusty.

See, while we here at the eXile keep things off the record if they're told to us in confidence, there's nothing in the Rules that says we can't use material that's been leaked to us. If you tell us something off the record, that's one thing, but we're not responsible for making sure other people won't tell us things you told them. And if they tell us something that you'd appreciate us not using, well, we're not after your appreciation. We're professionals here.

But, let's take a step back for a minute - what is it, exactly, that has Berry's panties all up in a knot?

Two weeks ago, a major scandal erupted on Johnson's Russia List, the influential internet list serving Russia scholars, journalists and wonks both in America and abroad. In JRL #9271 on October 19, Felgenhauer accused Berry and the MT of pro-Kremlin censorship because they didn't run his latest column. "Berry decided not to publish my regular column this week that was filed Sunday and was about the tragedy in Nalchik," Felgenhauer wrote on JRL. "But the story is, I believe, more important than a simple clash of opinion between editor and columnist."

Nalchik was another flare-up in the unending North Caucasus mess, where a group of up to 200 rebels launched simultaneous attacks on several strategic sites on October 13. It was initially reported like another Beslan, where Chechen terrorists captured a school last year and 344 civilians were killed, including 186 kids. Compared to that, Nalchik almost looked like a victory, with only 14 civilians and 35 security officers dead, as well as some 89 rebels. However, Nalchik differed from other terrorist attacks in that civilian targets were never targeted and the rebels were mostly local. According to reports, the rebels were neither well-trained nor coordinated, which is why they were cut down so easily.

Berry on Nalchik: Nothing is fucked

Felgenhauer's axed column argued that the Kremlin version of events in Nalchik was warped and contradicted common sense, and that there was evidence that there might have been zachistki, or the notorious "mopping-up" operations, after the rebels' initial failed attack. After all, a 3:1 kill ratio in favor of the security forces with few civilian casualties contradicts what we know about urban war, especially in Russia, where things tend to be very sloppy. He also argued in his spiked column that Putin has in the past supported a heavy-handed policy in the North Caucuses that includes "constantly kidnapping and massacring civilians, including women and children to terrorize local populations" and had signaled his intent to stay the course in a televised meeting with security heads after Nalchik, in which he wrote, "We have acted ruthlessly, and will continue to do so in the future."

Felgenhauer has published a column in the Times since 1993, almost since the paper's first press run, initially weekly and, as of last year, every other Tuesday. So when he got a curt email from Berry a few weeks ago informing him that she was spiking his Nalchik column, he was understandably livid. According to Felgenhauer, who spoke with me in the days after the scandal erupted and even forwarded me his email exchange with Berry, he was censored in a classic Soviet way: "She ultimately acknowledges my reconstruction of events, but still didn't publish the column. That's censorship."

Since Berry wouldn't comment, I'll be using her own emails to Felgenhauer to get her version of events.

Felgenhauer had filed the Nalchik column early, since he knew that the Times had just lost their opinion editor. This way, he figured, it wouldn't catch them off guard. Because of this courtesy, a few insignificant details were dated, but the column's general thrust remained solid. The next day, Felgenhauer received the following email:

Dear Pavel,

I have decided not to use your column this week. There are a number of factual problems and other questions, and frankly I just don't have time today to work with you to sort them out. For instance, Ivanov denied Basayev's claims that he participated in the attacks.

We are without an opinion page editor (or night editor) this week, and I'm already late for the WEF conference, where I'm a participant.

Regards,

Lynn

Lynn's accusation of a factual error is, ironically, factually wrong. Felgen-hauer's original column only said that the authorities had "accused well-known Chechen warlords Shamil Basayev and Doku Umarov of contributing forces to the attack on Nalchik." This is true, and includes such authorities as the Kabardino-Balkaria President Arsen Kanokov, Chechen Deputy Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov, Deputy Prosecutor-General Vladimir Kolesni-kov, and Deputy Interior Minister Alexander Chekalin.

Furthermore, Felgenhauer actually agreed with Defense Minster Sergei Ivanov on Basayev. Yet Lynn believed this "factual problem" was enough to kill a potentially controversial, yet ultimately prescient column. Clearly, she was too busy getting herself ready for the oligarch-fest at the World Economic Forum, someTimes referred to as the "Russian Davos," to give Felgenhauer's column a serious read-through.

That's the benign excuse. Felgenhauer has his own theory for why the column was spiked, which he expressed in his Monday letter to Berry: "I believe that the true reason my column was not published is self-evident - its self-imposed pro-Kremlin censorship, the inner trepidation by an editor to publish an opinion that is in opposition to the official line on what happened in Nalchik. It's well known in Moscow that I am very much part of the 'black list' of enemies of Vladimir Putin and his cohorts and that the Kremlin is particularly touchy about dissenting opinions on events in the Caucasus, especially if Putin is accused of personally endorsing ruthless repression, as is the case in the column you have scrapped.

"For some time I have understood that the Moscow Times was uneasy with continuing to publish my column. Last June my column was abruptly transferred from once a week to once in two weeks. The editors of MT told me that this was not aimed at me, but part of a new policy 'to transfer all columnists to once in two weeks to expand the number of opinions.' It later became obvious that it was a false explanation - there does not seem to be in evidence any transfer of 'all columnists' to once in two weeks.

"There is at present only one substantive problem left between you and me: Will you publish this letter, or will the readers be left guessing about the reasons of the disappearance of my column that was published weekly since 1993. This is a question of your personal and professional integrity or the lack of such. If the MT refuses to carry an appropriate explanation of the events, I will seek other means to tell the public the story about political censorship within The Moscow Times.

Pavel Felgenhauer"

Pavel Felgenhauer: Now out of print!

When I contacted Berry for her version of the split, she characterized it as "just a conflict between editor and columnist." In her mind, some pesky Russian dissident was threatening to spoil her Davos evening ball.

It turns out this wasn't the first time Berry spiked one of Felgenhauer's columns. It happened once before, in June 2003. The column, about the contract killings of Igor Klimov, the general director of Almaz-Antei, one of Russia's largest defense concerns, and his partner Sergei Shitko, was a seemingly benign analysis of the gossip about who was behind the high-level hit. Felgenhauer forwarded me the offending column and told me that, in a meeting with Berry, she said that it was the following paragraph that got the column axed:

"The small Mediterranean island state of Cyprus, till its coming accession to the EU, had an offshore opaque financial system that attracted billions of dollars from Russia. Cyprus up to now was especially favored by the Russian defense industry as a place to park billions dollars of illicit kickbacks from arms export deals. After a laundry some of the money reentered Russia to buy property and shares in defense and other companies under the guise of 'foreign investment.'"

Now, you might be slightly confused. It's no secret why Cyprus is the biggest foreign investor here, easily beating economic titans like the U.S. and Germany. Cyprus, as of the first half of 2005, had over $17 billion of accumulated investment, followed by heavyweight Luxembourg, the Netherlands and only then Germany, weighing in at almost $9 billion. It's not foreign investment from Cyprus, of course, but exported and washed Russian capital returning to the Russian market. So why did Berry kill it? According to Felgenhauer, "She said that Independent Media has Cyprus-based shareholders and she felt this paragraph would upset them."

So Berry spiked an article because she was afraid of upsetting her rich suitors. You know, the Davos types.

Most people assume an editor's primary concern should be getting the story right rather than pleasing shareholders. Especially if that editor comes from a newspaper which righteously attacks low Russian journalistic standards and ethics.

Lynn Berry once knowingly ate her own horse's balls

Which brings us to the big question: who are these Independent Media investors Lynn was protecting? Just three months before she spiked Felgenhauer's paragraph about shady Cyprus dealings, Prof-Media, owned by oligarch Vladimir Potanin, had bought a 35% stake in Independent Media.

Any questions?

Felgenhauer was furious about his Cyprus column getting spiked, so he and the MT reached an agreement that in the future they'd contact him before spiking it.

Cut to about two weeks ago: when Berry returned from Davos, she initially denied that the Moscow Times engaged in censorship. In her email to Felgenhauer, she then accused him of bad reporting: "You devote a great deal of space in the column to reporting what happened, but your reporting is sloppy and your figures dated."

Yet without going into the trivial details, it's clear that Berry was nitpicking, and not even good or accurate nitpicking at that.

Her real beef was more important, and brings up a dark side to the Moscow Times rarely seen. One of Felgenhauer's main points was that the official version of the Nalchik battle shouldn't be believed. "Dislodging rebels from multistoried buildings takes more than a couple of hours," he told me.

His point in the spiked column, which has later been confirmed by subsequent reports, was that something about this story was fishy. It turns out that, rather than a group of well-trained fighters, it was a Mickey Mouse collection of locals attempting what appears to have been a spontaneous uprising and getting the smack-down. His was the first English-language article to make this point - or would have been if it had run.

The other main problem was that Felgenhauer accused Putin of supporting human rights abuses in the Caucuses: "In the past human rights groups have accused security forces in the Caucasus of constantly kidnapping and massacring civilians, including women and children to terrorize local populations into accepting rule from Moscow. Now Putin, during a televised meeting with his security chiefs last Friday, has indorsed the same policy in Kabardino-Balkaria: 'We have acted ruthlessly and will do the same in the future.'"

To which Berry objected: "We have no evidence Putin was endorsing the kidnapping and killing of women and children and it would be irresponsible to suggest this." Folks, you heard it here first, just in case you ever had any doubts about where the Moscow Times comes from. Putin lies awake at night weeping over the kidnappings and zachistki, which he is powerless to stop.

Felgenhauer, in his conversation with me, claimed that this was the real reason for his article being shelved. "All the other arguments were petty, but this one gets to the core of my column," he told me.

In his final letter to Berry, he wrote, "Some of the worst alleged kidnappers - including Ramzan Kadyrov - as well as generals accused of war crimes and mass murder in Chechnya have been awarded the highest military decorations of Russia - Hero of Russia - by Putin personally. Is this endorsement or what? You admit you kicked out my column because of the [above] statement: I believe this is ample evidence of pro-Kremlin censorship in The Moscow Times." I couldn't have put it any better myself.

While the MT editorial page and its columnists have taken a pretty consistently critical line in regards to the Caucasus, this line was notoriously softened once Berry was brought in. Now, with this Felgenhauer conflict, it's in danger of softening even more. Berry told me, "He wasn't fired." But he certainly isn't going to be returning to a newspaper that censors him anytime soon.

The end result is not just that a longtime employee/dissident got screwed, but the Moscow Times' readers got shafted as well. Over the past 10 days or so, other reports have contained credible claims that some of the bodies held by the authorities in Nalchik as "terrorists" were likely innocent. A NY Times article by Steven Lee Myers, "Russian Law Leaves Bodies in Limbo, Raising Muslim Ire," contained several interviews with locals claiming that their dead relatives, some as young as 15, were simply caught in the crossfire. That article, while it doesn't contend that they were victims of zachistki, made references to repeated harassment by the authorities before the attack. Such harassment, according to the article, included arrests and the closure of six mosques last year. "Many people here see the attacks as an uprising against corruption and abuse, including arbitrary arrests and police beatings of anyone suspected of embracing Islam," Myers wrote.

He could have added that there's a clear ethnic component. In fact, the situation in Kabardino-Balkariya, the autonomous district of which Nalchik is the capital, looks like a fairly typical ethnic morass. The disenfranchised minority group, the Balkars, have been subject to Kremlin-approved rule by the majority Kabardins, and most of the "terrorists" apparently belonged to the former group. What may have happened was that the uprising was inspired by a recent changing of the guard, when longtime strong-arm Republic President Valery Kokov stepped down about a month ago and handed the reigns to Kremlin-appointed Arsen Kanokov, a rich Moscow-connected biznesmen. The ill-conceived uprising may have been timed to strike before he'd completely consolidated power.

But whatever the motivation, the more information that comes out, the more it looks like Felgenhauer called this one right. He told me, "I've spoken with eyewitnesses not connected to rebel movements that offer lots of supporting evidence that there was a rampage by security forces."

The reason Felgenhauer went public wasn't just because of his ego - not that he doesn't have one, mind you. It was because he thought it was an issue that needed to be addressed. And the reason Berry axed the story? Because she was too busy getting ready for the WEF, where all the "Cyprus investors" were gathering, to publish anything that would mean taking a risk. Amazingly, she was still defending her decision on the 22nd, after Novyi Izvestia reported that Russia's Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliyev and FSB Director Nikoalai Patrushev said that the raid of the raid on Nalchik was not a terrorist attack but an armed revolt. It seems what really angered her was not the fact that the ?had a scoop and failed to follow it up because of her negligence, but the loss of face that came from having Felgenhauer go public. After all, some rich people attending Davos read the JRL, too.

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