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.

Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP
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.'

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." 

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. 

"We understand that Gazprom-Media could not fail to respond to the criticism of high officials of the Russian Federation on our radio station," he said. In a tough on-air exchange between Putin and Venediktov last month, the Russian prime minister accused Ekho Moskvi of "serving the foreign policy interests of one state (against) Russia." 

When Venediktov became indignant at that suggestion, Putin shot back, "You’re offended, I feel. As for me, I’m not offended when you sling mud at me from dawn to dusk. Here I’ve just said two words and you got offended." 

Putin's press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, insisted that "Putin has no complaints with objective criticism," according to the independent Interfax agency. But, he said, Putin does become upset when criticism is "unconstructive, biased and prejudiced … We note with regret that such criticism has become increasingly dominant on Ekho Moskvi." 

Too hot to handle?

The removal of Ms. Sobchak's talk show, entitled Gosdep (State Department), could be another case of Kremlin interference or it might just be that her controversial political format was too hot for the international music TV network MTV to handle. 

One show last week featured several top opposition leaders who've been banned from major Russian TV channels, including Boris Nemtsov and frequently imprisoned left-wing street leader Sergei Udaltsov in a freewheeling political discussion. 

Sobchak says the last straw for the network came when she invited anti-corruption crusader and opposition leader Alexei Navalny to participate in a discussion about nationalism. 

"Despite the fact that our program was enjoying much higher ratings than most shows (on MTV) and it had caused great resonance, it has been removed from the air without explanation," Sobchak told Ekho Moskvi on Tuesday. "I know that our show was a great success, it was good journalism and interesting material. There's just no reason to shut down such a program." 

An uncertain future

Mr. Gorbachev, who has grown increasingly critical of Putin in recent months, said Wednesday that the turmoil at Ekho Moskvi is definitely happening on Kremlin orders. 

"I have no doubts about it," he said. "I am ashamed this is happening here. It's a democratic radio station, and we appreciate what it's doing." 

Gorbachev is part owner of Novaya Gazeta, the combative weekly newspaper that has seen five of its journalists murdered in recent years. 

"We do feel the pressure," says Andrei Kolesnikov, opinion editor of Novaya Gazeta. "Ekho Moskvi is a critical channel for the truth in our society, and we worry about what will happen to it and about this atmosphere that's being whipped up around the elections. What will become of us all after the elections, well, no one can predict that right now."

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