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Russian Newspaper Issues Wry Retraction

Edition Is a Protest Against Court Ruling

By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, February 1, 2005; Page A14

MOSCOW, Jan. 31 -- The Russian business daily Kommersant published an edition Monday that was blank except for a court-ordered retraction -- published upside down -- and other items related to an $11.4 million judgment against the publication.

The edition was a satirical protest against a legal finding that the newspaper had erred last summer when it suggested in an article that Moscow-based Alfa Bank was in financial trouble. The Monday edition also included the text of the court's ruling and a photo of the bank's principal shareholder, Mikhail Fridman, shaking hands with President Vladimir Putin.

"This is already having an impact on the press in Russia," said Andrei Vasilyev, the newspaper's editor in chief. "For many other newspapers this kind of sum would have put them out of business. Russian law does not recommend this kind of severe verdict."

An appeals court ruled last month that the newspaper, which is owned by the exiled tycoon Boris Berezovsky, a political enemy of Putin's, had damaged the bank's reputation.

Alfa Bank argued successfully that the July 7 article was false and led to a $210 million run on deposits last summer by frightened account holders, some of whom never reopened their accounts.

"This issue is devoted entirely to Alfa Bank and Mikhail Maratovich Fridman, so that they're happy," the paper said in a brief commentary on its largely white front page under a headline that rhymed with a Russian swearword. "We apologize to the other readers of the paper and assure them that the next issue of the paper will come out in the normal format. Even if the private individual . . . and legal entity mentioned above are not happy about this."

Five of the newspaper's eight pages were completely blank except for the date and section headers.

Vasilyev said other newspapers ran similar articles last July about Alfa Bank that were submitted to the court as part of the newspaper's defense. He said the court ignored those submissions, but he declined to characterize the verdict as political.

Kommersant, which transferred the $11.4 million to court bailiffs last week after losing its first appeal, plans a further appeal, according to the newspaper's attorneys. They said the judgment amounted to 70 percent of the newspaper's assets and that the company had been forced to get a loan from another bank to pay it.

In a statement, Alfa Bank said if the decision continued to be upheld, it intended to donate all of the money to charity, including foundations for freedom of speech and organizations that support the families of journalists killed while reporting.

"Alfa Bank is confident that such a highly reputed publisher as Kommersant will take into consideration this experience and that steps will be taken to see that mistakes such as this are not repeated in the future," the bank said.

The newspaper argued that the case was a test of the country's commitment to a free press. After the original judgment in October, the Paris-based World Association of Newspapers and World Editors Forum protested to the Russian authorities.

"We would like to draw your attention to the belief widely held among the global press that the award of such massive damages, which are almost 10 times higher than any sum previously awarded, might appear to be politically motivated and intended to intimidate critical media," the organizations wrote in a letter to Russia's High Arbitration Court.

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