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St Petersburg Journalist Fired for Political Revelations

  • Brian Whitmore

St. Petersburg, May 27 (RFE/RL) -- The St Petersburg daily newspaper Nevskoye Vremya fired a journalist this weekend for charging that the paper's politics department has had an under cover deal to print stories favorable to incumbent Mayor Anatoly Sobchak, who is running for re-election in a close race.

After the newsman, Vladimir Kovolyev, was fired Friday, politics editor Alexander Gorshkov, and Alexander Poznyakov, another reporter, quit the paper in protest.

In an interview last week jointly with RFE/RL's correspondent and The St Petersburg Times, a Dutch-owned, English-language newspaper, Kovalyev, Gorshkov and Poznyakov said that Nevskoye Vremya's editorial staff censored material about Sobchak's competitors in the city's May 19 gubernatorial election. That race resulted in a runoff campaign between Sobchak and Deputy Mayor Vladimir Yakovlev, with a second-round vote set June 2.

Kovalyev told our correspondent that the firing shocked him, coming ten years after Perestroika. Kovlayev said that he and the other journalists were motivated to speak out, not because of any preferences in the election, but only by opposition to censorship. Just prior to the firing, political editor Gorshkov told Swedish Radio that, in his words, "The difference between now and the Soviet period is that then I would be fired for talking to you, now I will not."

Both the mayor's office and the Nevskoye Vremya's editor in chief, Alla Manilova, have issued denials that there is any arrangement by which the newspaper has agreed to support the mayor's re-election bid.

Manilova, in a telephone interview Thursday, denied the charge that money had guided the paper's policy. She acknowledged that the paper's board of directors decided to give editorial support to Sobchak before the campaign began last month. She said the papers' staff had made no objection to the policy.

Mayoral Press Secretary Lyudmila Fomachova also denied the charges Thursday.

During the general campaign for the city governor post, opponents criticized the Sobchak administration for what they called manipulation of the mass media. On election night, challenger Yakovlev said his campaign made a strong showing despite what he called a "media blackout."

In another controversy, a former St Petersburg regional administrator has accused Mayor Sobchak of misappropriating funds equal to 250,000 U.S. dollars from the city budget, and of threatening him should he go public with his allegations. Sobchak fired Pavel Koshelev, head of the city's Petrograd District, May 6 for giving a no interest loan of city funds to a Petrograd Region sports club.

Koshelev asserts the charges were trumped up by the mayor to smother Koshelev's efforts to recover the missing rubles. He offered what he said was documentary proof that the sports-club loan had been approved by Deputy Mayor Valery Malyshev. At a press conference, Koshelev played what he said was a recording of a conversation he had with Sobchak taped without Sobchak's knowledge. On the tape, Sobchak purportedly seeks Koshelev's agreement to drop the issue of the missing money.

Sobchak spokesperson Furmachova said Koshelev simply was fired for violating the law.