Leading independent radio station faces pressure after Putin criticism

Ekho Moskvy is Russia’s most popular talk radio station, with 900,000 listeners daily. Since its creation in 1990 it has delivered information as an independent media which, unlike Russian TV, isn’t subject to censorship. This remained the case even after state-owned Gazprom’s holding — Gazprom-Media — bought out 66 per cent shares of Ekho Moskvy in the early 2000s and later, when Gazprom-Media fell under control of big bank “Russia” board of directors chair Yuri Kovalchuk, considered a close friend of Vladimir Putin.

But this week many observers have expressed concerns over Ekho’s ability to continue to remain independent, after Gazprom-Media demanded pre-term resignation and re-election of the station’s board of directors.
Two independent directors — Evgeny Yasin, research director of National Research University Higher School of Economics, and Alexander Makovsky, deputy head of Public Law Research Centre Council – have been forced to step down from their positions on the board, and the station’s editor-in-chief Alexey Venediktov and his deputy Vladimir Varfolomeev — two of three Echo’s representatives in the board — have stepped down voluntarily.

Gazprom Media used to appoint four of nine board of directors members, three were from the station, whilst the other two were independent. Now Gazprom Media will appoint five members, and Ekho Moskvy will only have two representatives, which, according to Venediktov, will “make it easier for Gazprom Media to replace the editor in chief”. The two new independent directors recommended by Gazprom Media are both close to president Dmitry Medvedev.

Ekho Moskvy journalists own 34 per cent of the station’s share. For 10 years they have struggled to buy out the other shares from Gazprom Media, but they have been unsuccessful. Staff have expressed concerns over the demands from Gazprom Media.

In an official statement, the journalists explained that they understood the need to respond to officials who are critics of the station, but added that the hasty advancement of the board of directors meeting needed to be explained.
Ekho Moskvy has been criticised by Putin for its in-depth coverage of events including the Moscow theatre and Beslan school hostage crises and the 2008 South Ossetia war. Last month Putin said the station’s journalists “poured diarrhoea” on him “day and night”.

Alexey Venediktov and Gazprom Media representatives claim the resignations from the board of directors will not affect Ekho Moskvy editorial policy and won’t lead to Venediktov’s removal. They explained he will keep his post for two more years and can then be re-elected in accordance with the station’s charter.

The new Echo representative on the board, the station’s directorYuri Fedutinov said the journalists have never faced any pressure from Gazprom Media.

Vladimir Putin’s spokesperson Dmitry Peskov denied allegations of Putin involvement in the change, saying the pre-term board of directors resignation relates to “Gazprom Media corporate agenda”.

But Evgeny Yasin and Alexander Makovsky both say Gazprom Media’s move is to “influence editorial’s policy”.
Yasin told journalists: “This is done to establish government control over independent media to avoid any problems the authorities might have.”

Former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev has called Gazprom Media’s demand “a slap in the face of public opinion”.

In an interview for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Russian service, he added: “To act that way with an independent, democratic radio station, which is loved and appreciated and to which people listen and [whose] material they read on the Internet is such ignorance.”

On his blog, Yabloko opposition party founder and unregistered presidential candidate Grigory Yavlinsky called the incident “direct pressure on media”, which may indicate the government’s policy on free media after presidential elections. But the more pressure the authorities apply, the more obvious the shortage of freedom will be, he added, stating that repressions won’t stop the protest movement which arose after allegedly fraudulent parliamentary elections in Russia.

Another two incidents marked the scandal over Gazprom Media and Ekho Moskvy. On 15 February, the day after the scandal began, the Prosecutor’s office in Presnensky’s Moscow district called Alexey Venediktov. Prosecutors referred to an appeal which was filed by a citizen who claimed that the Ekho Moskvy’s charter didn’t correspond to Russia’s Labour Code. The applicant turned out to be from Yabloko party, he expressed concern over Echo’s journalists being forbidden to enter political parties. Yabloko’s superior members promised to exclude the complainant from the party and called his complaint “a provocation”.

In another incident, Ekho Moskvy journalist Alexander Pluschev’s had his blog, Twitter and Facebook accounts hacked. The journalist considers this a response to his post about pro-Putin youth movement “Nashi” where he described how they insulted him and allegedly damaged his car.