Russian Radio Warns of State Crackdown on its Independence

Ekho Moskvy, a critical Russian radio station, accused the government of seeking to stifle its independence after the media’s outlet state-owned controlling shareholder moved to dissolve its board.

OAO Gazprom Media, a division of Russia’s state-run gas company that controls 66 percent of the station’s voting shares, wants to replace the board after calling a meeting more than two months ahead of schedule for March 29, according to a statement published on the Moscow-based radio station’s website today.

The development came a month after Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who’s facing a wave of protests in big cities as he seeks to return to the presidency on March 4 elections, accused the station of vilifying him “from morning to night.”

The station’s editor-in-chief, Alexei Venediktov, said that the new board would have the power to remove him. “Now for the first time since 2001, when we were acquired by Gazprom Media, we have a situation where it’s technically possible to sack the editor of Ekho Moskvy by order of the government,” he said by phone today.

Opposition Interviews

The shake-up is related to running Ekho Moskvy’s business operations and won’t affect its editorial policy, Gazprom Media spokeswoman Irina Zenkova was cited as saying by Interfax.

Putin, 59, who’s seeking to extend his 12-year-rule, last month told that the station is “slinging mud” at him and accused it of serving U.S. foreign-policy interests by speaking favorably of U.S. missile defense plans opposed by Russia. Ekho Moskvy regularly interviews opposition politicians and others with limited access to state-run television. Putin established state control of nationwide television after coming to power in 2000.

“We understand that Gazprom Media wasn’t able to ignore the criticism by senior Russian officials,” the station said in the statement. “We assure our listeners that Ekho Moskvy’s editorial policy was and will continue to be based on Russian law and in the public interest, as it always has been.”

Billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, who is challenging Putin in the presidential race, said during a meeting with students in Moscow that he’s arranging a loan to help the station buy out Gazprom Media’s stake.

Buying Out Gazprom

“I’ve already said that one of my first acts as the Russian president would be to secure the independence of all mass media and have the state and state companies exit as shareholders,” he wrote on his blog.

Venediktov said that while he was grateful for the offer, Gazprom Media had previously refused offers to buy it out.

In an article Putin wrote last month for the Vedomosti newspaper, whose publishers include the Financial Times and Wall Street Journal, the prime minister said state-run companies should “spin off” media holdings. Gazprom Media also controls NTV, one of the three main federal television channels, which it took over a decade ago from businessman Vladimir Gusinsky, who is now in exile.

Ekho Moskvy, whose daily broadcasts reach 900,000 people with a potential audience of about 46 million, was one of several liberal media outlets whose websites were shut down by hackers during Dec. 4 parliamentary elections, which handed Putin’s United Russia party a much reduced majority in the State Duma amid allegations of widespread fraud.

Attempted Coup

The station was founded in 1990 and gained a following after it stayed on the air during an attempted coup by Communist hardliners in 1991 against Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, when state-controlled airwaves ceased broadcasts. Its journalists account for 34 percent of voting shares.

Two independent board directors are quitting after Gazprom Media called a snap election for March, the station said. Venediktov said he’s also leaving the board. The previous board had ensured editorial independence by reserving three positions for journalists, two for independent directors and four for representatives of Gazprom Media, he said.

Nikolay Senkevich, the chief executive officer of Gazprom Media, wasn’t available to comment when Bloomberg News called his Moscow office today. Questions e-mailed to Zenkova weren’t immediately answered.

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