Russian authorities aim to control independent media ahead of election?
Two weeks before Presidential election in Russia, board of directors of the independent radio station Ekho Moskvy was changed. This week the Moscow Prosecutor's Office announced that the online television station Dozhd TV was under investigation to determine who financed the channel's broadcasts of anti-Kremlin demonstrations. French journalist and author Anne Nivat expelled from the country for interviewing opposition.
Saturday, 18 February 2012, by HRH London, based on Committee to Protect Journalists and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty information.
According to the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), the chief editor of Russia's leading liberal radio station, Ekho Moskvy, says a surprise management reshuffle is aimed at dictating the station's coverage ahead of presidential elections on 4 March.
Board of Ekho Moskvy dissolved
Aleksei Venediktov, below, said on 14 February the move by controlling shareholder Gazprom-Media to dissolve the board of directors was meant to "take control" of coverage of the election, which is taking place in an atmosphere of rising antigovernment sentiment.
The timing of the development and the potential consequences for Ekho's editorial policy threw listeners into a frenzy of worry and speculation. Venediktov ironically described the reshuffle as a "valentine" from Gazprom-Media, the powerful media arm of state-controlled energy giant Gazprom.
The purported initiator of Ekho's board shuffle, Gazprom-Media, is the media arm of the state gas monopoly Gazprom; with 66 percent of shares, it is the majority owner of Ekho Moskvy. The station's journalists hold 34 percent.
Responding to suggestions that the move was masterminded by the Kremlin in order to hush criticism of Vladimir Putin in the run-up to the March 4 vote, Gazprom-Media said the shuffle stemmed from "internal corporate procedure" and the need to adjust the makeup of Ekho Moskvy's board to "corporate standards." But Gazprom-Media also said the move was hastened by "the recently heightened attention from various sides to the radio station."
Gazprom-Media did not clarify what it meant by "various sides" or "heightened attention," fueling conjecture of political interference.
Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) informs that in an open letter to listeners, the staff of Ekho Moskvy said the board shuffle was conducted inexplicably prematurely – before the scheduled June annual board meeting, at which such procedural issues were to be discussed. The staff posed the question: Why the urgency?
Two independent directors removed
The dissolution of the Ekho Moskvy board removes two independent directors, in addition to four representatives from Gazprom-Media and three from Ekho Moskvy. A new board is set to be voted on in late March. Officials from the station have said that the board will continue to include two independent directors, but that no journalists would remain on the board.
In an interview with the independent news website Gazeta, now-former Ekho Moskvy Director Evgeny Yasin said he believes authorities "wish to attain the obedience of Ekho Moskvy and establish control of its editorial policy."
Yasin said the move could only be orchestrated by the high echelons of power because Gazprom has had a hands-off attitude to the station in the past. "The government apparently wants to establish control over independent media," Yasin told Gazeta, "and Ekho Moskvy is, in a sense, a flagman. If it changes course, all others would either be falling in line or resist."
Aleksei Venediktov, who has resigned from the board, said the move would not affect the station's editorial policy or his standing as editor in chief.
Yury Fedutinov, the director-general of Ekho Moskvy, said the station's journalists had never been subject to pressure from the board or Gazprom-Media to change their coverage.
Online TV under investigation
The Moscow Prosecutor's Office announced on 16 February that the independent online television station Dozhd TV was under investigation to determine who financed the channel's live broadcasts of massive anti-Kremlin demonstrations in the capital on December 10 and 24.
Prosecutors say their probe came in response to a request from Robert Shlegel, a State Duma deputy from the ruling United Russia party and a former spokesman for the pro‑Kremlin youth group Nashi.
Shlegel said on Twitter that it appeared to him that Dozhd appeared to be a "sponsor" and "organizer" of the protests that followed the disputed December 4 parliamentary elections. In an interview with Dozhd TV he went even farther, suggesting the station may be receiving financing from the United States, RFE/RL reports.
French journalist expelled
According to CPJ, a prominent French journalist and author Anne Nivat, below, was expelled from Russia on 13 February on alleged violation of her visa status.
Authorities interrogated Nivat for four hours on Friday and informed her that she had violated the status of her business visa by meeting with the opposition. Authorities cancelled her visa and gave her three days to leave the country. Nivat, an expert on Russia's North Caucasus with years of experience reporting in Russia, had been conducting interviews for a new book.
Authorities do not want to lose control
CPJ indicates an increasingly restrictive environment for journalists in the lead-up to Russia's presidential election. According to it, these days developments are also a sign that Russian authorities are jittery about losing control of public opinion.
Faced with unprecedented opposition that has taken to the Moscow streets, they are placing a strategic claim on the one independent broadcaster with ability to influence en mass. This causality is best explained by Putin himself. In one famous interview from 2004, he told his interlocutor: "Authority, like a man, must always try, and the press, like a woman, must always resist." If anyone is capable of resisting, it is Ekho Moskvy.
HRH London, based on Committee to Protect Journalists and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty information.