Putin accuses free media of pandering to foreign interests

Prime Minister said Moscow radio station's output had 'poured diarrhoea' over him

Vladimir Putin has launched a vitriolic attack on one of Russia's few independent media outlets, accusing its editor-in-chief of unfounded criticism and insinuating the radio station served foreign interests.

Russia's Prime Minister lectured Alexei Venediktov, of Ekho Moskvy radio, during a meeting on Wednesday with Russian media hotshots. At the same meeting he attacked the leaders of recent mass protests against his planned return to the Kremlin for not engaging in dialogue with the authorities, despite in the past having dismissed them as foreign agents.

Mr Putin, in his characteristic earthy lexicon, said that Mr Venediktov's radio station "poured diarrhoea" over him in its broadcasts. He also said that while lying in bed one evening he had listened to a discussion on US plans for a missile defence system in Europe and come to the conclusion that the radio station was biased. "I have never heard such ravings... This isn't news, this is serving the foreign policy interests of one state with regard to another, with regard to Russia."

Ekho Moskvy is owned by the state energy giant Gazprom, but is able to keep an independent editorial line and is widely respected in Russia. Unlike state-controlled television, it gives airtime to members of the liberal and radical opposition to the Kremlin. Mr Putin has frequently suggested that those who oppose him are doing the bidding of foreign powers. He has suggested that rights activists are "jackals" who wait outside Western embassies for cash handouts, and recently said that the mass protests against his rule were organised by the US State Department.

In a barbed exchange with Mr Venediktov, Mr Putin tried to suggest that it was the radio editor who was overly sensitive to criticism, but it was the Prime Minister who came out looking the thinner skinned. "You're offended, I can see it on your face," said Mr Putin. Mr Venediktov said he was indeed offended.

"But I don't get offended with you, when you pour diarrhoea on me day and night. I've said two words to you and now you're offended," Mr Putin replied.

Mr Venediktov said he was joking, and was not actually offended. "Well, I'm not joking," shot back Mr Putin.

"It was completely unexpected that he would start criticising the station," said Mr Venediktov. "But if I criticise him, then why shouldn't he be able to criticise me too."

At the meeting with Russian media chiefs, Mr Putin was also asked why he has not reached out for dialogue with the leaders of the protest movement.

Mr Putin is standing in presidential elections on 4 March that would see him returned to the Kremlin. Even though he is still likely to win, the expected smoothly choreographed transition appears to have been derailed somewhat by the protests against him and his United Russia party that have swept the country in recent months.

Yesterday several opposition politicians said they would be happy to meet Mr Putin to discuss their demands.

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