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Russia's islands of media freedom are under attack

Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev says management changes at a radio station were ordered by the Kremlin and Vladimir Putin. Mr. Gorbachev worries other news outlets could be next.

By Correspondent / February 15, 2012

Alexey Venediktov, editor-in-chief of Ekho Moskvy radio station speaks to The Associated Press Television in his office in Moscow, Tuesday, Feb. 14. Ekho Moskvi, was forced to change its board of directors after Prime Minister Vladimir Putin accused Venediktov of 'slinging mud at me from dawn to dusk.'

Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP

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Moscow

One of Russia's few independent radio stations, Ekho Moskvi, was forced to change its board of directors after Prime Minister Vladimir Putin accused its controversial news editor, Alexei Venediktov, of "slinging mud at me from dawn to dusk." 

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A new and very highly-rated talk show on the Russian MTV youth channel was abruptly pulled off the air after its celebrity host, socialite Ksenia Sobchak, invited anti-corruption blogger and opposition activist Alexei Navalny to participate on the program this Friday. 

The last Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev warned in an interview that the Kremlin ordered the management changes at Ekho Moskvi and worries that the opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta, of which he is part owner, could be next. 

Are these events – all of which have occurred in the past day – just routine media upsets? Or do they herald a coming crackdown on the few little islands of relative free speech that have flourished during the Putin-era amid a sea of huge media outlets dominated by the state and Kremlin-friendly oligarchs? 

"The political situation is developing badly for Putin," says Dmitry Oreshkin, head of the Mercator Group, an independent Moscow-based media consultancy.  Putin is running for a third presidential term.

"Putin is not getting the political traction he needs, and he can't just walk away from power, because he might find himself in court the next day," Mr. Oreshkin says. Putin sits at the center of a system of power that feels threatened right now, "and that's why our 'collective Putin' is turning to authoritarian methods."

Putin: 'You sling mud at mud at me from dawn to dusk'

On Tuesday the state-run Gazprom-Media corporation, which owns 66 percent of Ekho Moskvi, ordered a surprise boardroom shakeup which led to the sacking of editor-in-chief Mr. Venediktov and two other liberal board members. Though removed from the management side, Venediktov remains in charge of the station's newsroom. However, he later told his radio audience that the removal of himself and his allies from the board will "make it easier to fire the editor" in the near future. 

In a statement posted on Ekho Moskvi's website, Venediktov said that the station's journalists, who own 34 percent of the station's shares, are "bewildered" by the sudden changes, and added that the sackings were probably political payback. 

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