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Russia: Irreverent English-Language Tabloid Closes Down

(AFP) After 11 years of providing Moscow readers with investigative journalism, irreverent commentary, and sophomoric gags, the English-language newspaper the "The eXile" is closing down after investors fled in the face of a government inspection of the paper's content.

The alternative tabloid -- known for its Gonzo-style journalism on drugs, sex, politics, and the seamier side of Moscow nightlife -- announced the closure in a blog posted on its website on June 11.

The paper's demise, and the investors' flight, was sparked by a visit on June 6 by inspectors from the Federal Service for Mass Media, Telecommunications, and the Protection of Cultural Heritage.

"In the current atmosphere...just the thought of having this government looking at you, reading you, and deciding if you are violating laws is pretty scary, and it's not something you can win," Mark Ames, the newspaper's editor in chief and founder, tells RFE/RL. "It was enough to frighten away people who were helping us stay afloat the last couple years."

The inspectors told Ames that someone complained that the paper "mocks and humiliates Russian traditions and history." Ames says the inspectors, who he described as "reasonably civilized officials," were particularly interested in the paper's relationship with bombastic opposition leader Eduard Limonov, who writes a column for the paper.

"The first thing they asked about was Eduard Limonov. They wanted to see a copy of a recent article by him," Ames says. "They asked what kind of stuff he publishes with us, do we know about him, why he was in there, and so on. They were more than anything interested in our style."

Foreign-Language Media In The Crosshairs?

Ames -- whose documentary films have appeared on "EuroNews" and on the Kremlin-controlled English-language television station "Russia Today" -- says the inspectors took three issues of the paper for analysis to determine whether it violated legislation prohibiting the promotion of extremism, pornography, or narcotics. The inspectors were due to complete their analysis by June 11, but by that time the paper's backers had already backed out, dooming it to discontinue publication.

Limonov tells RFE/RL that he believes "The eXile's" demise is a continuation of a drive to rein in and control all media operating in the country.

"The authorities have completely destroyed the Russian-language free press. Now they are starting to look around in order to shut up the foreign-language free press," Limonov says. "They started with the weakest foreign-language paper because 'The eXile' is not owned by foreign capital. Their owners are Russians."

Limonov adds that such is the atmosphere of fear in today's Russia that the authorities did not even need to formally close "The eXile" down themselves. All it took was a little inspection to scare away financial backers.

"The newspaper is dead, not because the Russian authorities said it would be closed but because investors got scared and they just scattered out of sight," Limonov says. "That is the problem in a police state like ours. It's a great problem."

Officials from the Federal Service for Mass Media, Telecommunications, and the Protection of Cultural Heritage could not be reached for comment.

Silly Gags, Serious Reporting

Launched in 1997, "The eXile" quickly made its mark on the Russian capital with a unique mix of hard-hitting political analysis, quirky columns, and offbeat humor that many believed stretched the boundaries of decency.

Eduard Limonov fears the Kremlin will now target foreign-language media in Russia (RFE/RL)

Writers, for example, would recount their sexual exploits and decadent club-hopping in graphic detail. In 1999, in the waning years of Boris Yeltsin's presidency, the paper published a cover picturing the ailing and wobbly Kremlin leader with the headline: "Die Already!"

"The eXile" was also renowned for its childish -- and often hilarious -- gags.

Its reporters once called former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and, posing as representatives of the New York Jets football team, offered him the job of defensive coordinator. Another time they ordered a call girl. When she arrived at the paper's office, instead of performing her usual services, she was asked by the staff to write an article for publication.

In the 1990s, Matt Taibbi, now a correspondent for "Rolling Stone," wrote a widely circulated article about how he applied for a firearms permit in Moscow -- while wearing a gorilla suit. Ames, for his part, wrote a detailed account of using the toilet in retired General Aleksandr Lebed's home, where he and Taibbi were interviewing the politician.

Every year, the international press would dread "The eXile's" annual "Worst Foreign Correspondent In Moscow" contest, in which the paper would pillory what it saw as their laziness, inaccuracy, and sloppy reporting.

But the paper also earned praise for more traditional journalism. In a 1998 story, Ames predicted the massive financial crisis that would befall Russia in August of that year. Taibbi wrote well-received firsthand reports on the plight of Russian coal miners and the state of the country's high schools.

Ames throws modesty to the wind in reflecting on his tenure at the paper. "We've done God's work and I plan to carry it on in some other way," he says. "We all do. All the writers who write for us do."

The paper has launched a fundraiser on its website in an effort to keep its online edition afloat.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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