Criticism of Kremlin ends career of Russian anchor

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One of Russia's top television news anchors has been unceremoniously driven off air for apparently being too critical of the Kremlin, a move which drew fierce criticism from free speech advocates and from Mikhail Gorbachev, the former Soviet president.

Olga Romanova, the host of REN TV's daily news programme 24, discovered she had been dropped after she found her way to her Moscow broadcast studio physically blocked by security guards. The men told her they had orders from Alexander Ordzhonikidze, REN's director general, not to allow her to go on air.

Mr Ordzhonikidze has denied his decision was political and claimed it was driven by the programme's allegedly low ratings, the need to get in fresh talent and natural rotation.

It was, he claimed, "a normal working process". However, Ms Romanova, who is preparing a lawsuit against the station, has revealed that she ran into trouble after she accused REN TV's management of deliberately suppressing news so as not to upset Russia's government.

In a chat show on Ekho Moskvy, one of Russia's most liberal radio stations, she claimed she had been forced to drop two news items for political reasons. The first concerned the closure of an investigation into a hit-and-run incident involving the Defence Minister's son, and the second the building in central Moscow of a $15m (£8m) clock tower/church by a Kremlin-backed sculptor loathed by the general public.

Ms Romanova is one of Russia's best known television news anchors and won an award last year for her analytical news coverage. In a media environment where television stations are uniformly state-controlled and Kremlin compliant, REN TV was until now reckoned to have retained some measure of independence.

Her abrupt demotion - an effective sacking - has drawn fierce criticism from liberal MPs, who have promised to table questions in parliament, and from free speech advocates.

The former Soviet President, Mikhail Gorbachev, in a rare rebuke to the Kremlin, said he was worried by the development. "Olga Romanova's treatment is a clarion call that tells us that we have lost the last station which kept even a little independence and objectivity in its coverage," he said.

Fredrick Yakovenko, of the Russian Union of Journalists, called the incident evidence of censorship. "They have closed off the last air hole for nationwide political broadcast. This has a completely obvious political character," he said. "I think national broadcasts are now completely encased in concrete. National mass media are, it appears, now basically finished."

The scandal erupted shortly after REN TV changed hands. The channel was formerly run by Irina Lesnevskaya and her son, Dmitry, who jealously guarded the station's editorial independence. They sold their stake as part of a takeover deal last month that saw 70 per cent of the channel fall into the hands of the industrial conglomerates Severstal and Surgutneftegaz. Both companies are run by people with extremely close links to the Kremlin. The new owners had promised there would be no significant editorial changes but critics say the Romanova incident shows such claims are untrue.

REN TV is considered to be a Moscow rather than a truly nationwide station, but the broadcaster itself claims to reach 97 of Russia's 144 million population.

Under Vladimir Putin, the President, almost all major Russian broadcasters have been directly or indirectly controlled by the government since the 2001 takeover of the NTV network by Gazprom, the state-run natural gas monopoly. Earlier this year Gazprom raised eyebrows by buying a controlling stake in Izvestia, one of Russia's oldest and most independent national daily newspapers. It replaced the title's editor with Vladimir Mamontov who previously edited one of the country's most salacious tabloids.