Radio station that dared to anger Putin faces the music

 

Moscow

One of Russia's most respected media outlets cried foul yesterday as its owners, the energy giant Gazprom, insisted on a boardroom reshuffle.

The move was widely seen as politically motivated, coming a fortnight before presidential elections in which Vladimir Putin is set to win a return to the Kremlin, and a month after the Prime Minister accused the radio station of constantly "pouring diarrhoea" over him.

Although controlled by the media arm of Gazprom, Ekho Moskvy is well known for its courageous journalists, lively talk shows, and uncensored news bulletins. Alexei Venediktov, the station's editor-in-chief, said yesterday that he suspected the move by Gazprom Media to reshuffle the station's board of directors was an attempt to "take control" of coverage of the election.

Even though Mr Putin is expected to win the 4 March vote, street protests that have erupted over the past two months have changed the political context in the country.

Mr Putin attacked Ekho Moskvy during a meeting with Russian media chiefs last month. He told Mr Venediktov that he had chanced upon the radio station one evening before going to bed and had been shocked by what he had heard.

"I have never heard such ravings," he said. "This isn't news, this is serving the foreign policy interests of one state with regard to another, with regard to Russia."

After the conversation, Mr Venediktov said he did not mind being criticised by Mr Putin. But it now appears the politician's words could spell trouble for the radio station.

Mr Venediktov and other top editors have vowed that the editorial line of the radio station will not change, but it is clear the move is meant as a shot across the bows of the station in the run-up to the election.

A spokesman for Mr Putin denied that the prime minister had anything to do with the decision, and Mr Venediktov himself suggested the decision could have been taken by over-eager officials who took Mr Putin's words as a signal.

"This is an example of how the state puts pressure on the media, it's an example of direct pressure," said the liberal politician Grigory Yavlinsky yesterday. "It's a warning act from which we can judge what will come after the elections."

In recent weeks, there has been talk of a more liberal media policy in Russia. But in another sign that a fresh crackdown is under way ahead of the elections, the socialite Ksenia Sobchak said yesterday that her new talk show, which premiered on Russian MTV last week, had been cancelled by the channel after the first episode had featured genuine debate of the like that has not been seen on Russian television for years.

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