Out of Russia: 'Time' pays a high price for sex scoop

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MOSCOW - Gruesome news is one commodity never in short supply. But abundance has whetted rather than sated public appetite. And, for once, the free market seems to work. The newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets leads a crowded field; it used to be the most daring and sordid. But next to newer entries such as Scandal it is stodgy and tame. Stories include a woman finding bullets in meat that turns out to be flesh from a murder victim. Still, the honesty of editors is refreshing. Gennady Fedotov, founder of Very Frightening Newspaper, explains: 'We cover phenomena not facts.'

Enter Time magazine, exemplar of a rather more sober-minded journalistic creed. 'We have always taken pride in our tradition of group journalism,' gushed a publisher's note introducing 'Sex for Sale', the cover story of 21 June. What follows is a fine piece of reporting. But its centrepiece is badly flawed: four pages of colour photographs purporting to document the lives of Marik and Dima, two homeless Russian child prostitutes, and Sasha, their adult pimp-protector. The story is one that even Very Frightening Newspaper might gag on. Indeed, the harrowing tale - and the awful pictures - have appeared in at least three Russian papers.

Sasha, the pimp, is said to have found Marik, eight, and two other boys abandoned on the street. He took them in and now dresses them up as girls and sells their sexual services for dollars 20 ( pounds 14) a day in front of the Bolshoi Theatre. His work is 'documented', as Time puts it, by an 'exclusive series' of photographs taken by Alexei Ostrovsky, an 18-year-old freelance photographer. One picture shows Marik dressed as a girl touting for business on a bridge with the onion domes of St Basil's in the background; others show Marik sitting on the lap of a man said to be a customer and watching as Sasha haggles with a prospective customer in a battered white Lada.

But many photographers in Moscow say the extraordinary images are fakes - a product of Russia's flourishing cottage industry in made-to-measure horror. 'They are fake. There is no doubt about it,' insists Roman Poderny, 28, a Russian photographer. 'I have heard nothing but bad things about this photographer. He decided he wanted to be famous and this is how he does it . . . These pictures are impossible. Where is there a pimp so stupid as to pose saying 'I'm a pimp selling children'?'

Several photographic agencies, including Sygma and Gamma, rejected pictures offered by Mr Ostrovsky, who has since vanished. Sean Ramsay, a US photographer who has met Marik and Sasha, says he warned Time's Moscow office of a scam. Time published the photographs. Richard Ellis, chief photographer of Reuters in Moscow, was outraged. He wrote to fellow photographers: Sasha, he said, was not a pimp but a male prostitute, hustler and fixer for journalists seeking an entree to Moscow's underground scene.

Ostrovsky, he continued, 'has no idea about journalism or ethics, only how to make money'.

Mr Ramsay has a video of Marik sitting with a woman claiming to be his mother. Marik says he is not eight, but 11. He denies being a prostitute. 'He does not live with a pimp, does not dress up like a girl and does not make money off sex. It is all a deliberate lie,' says Mr Ramsay.

Seven weeks after the photographs appeared, Time magazine has finally responded to its critics with a note from the managing editor. 'We feel the need to alert our readers when there is only the possibility that a mistake has been made. This is one of those times,' writes James Gaines at the start of a half-hearted, half-apology. He challenges the motives of Mr Ellis and others who blew the whistle, and insists Time has not yet paid Mr Ostrovsky. 'We may never get to the whole truth of the matter,' concludes Mr Gaines, 'but we will continue to try.'

The editor of Very Frightening Newspaper will no doubt kick himself for not dreaming up the story. But the final word should go to Izvestia, one of the few Russian papers to have shunned the temptation of fiction; yesterday it carried an article on the saga: 'Prostitution, the oldest profession of all, and journalism, second on the list, join together in hard-currency ecstasy.'