Feb. 18 (Bloomberg) -- Russia’s Ekho Moskvy radio station, which gives a platform to critics of the government, said it faces a threat to editorial independence as its state-controlled majority owner moved to replace the company’s chief executive.
Ekaterina Pavlova a former high-level manager in state media, was elected as CEO at a shareholder meeting, Gazprom Media, a unit of the gas exporter, which controls 66 percent of voting shares, said on its website today. She replaces Yuri Fedutinov, who has been in that job since 1992.
The decision is “unfair,” Ekho Moskvy Editor-in-Chief Alexei Venediktov, who faces re-election to another five-year term, said in a blog entry today. The move is “not based on economic grounds and is aimed at pressuring the editorial policy of Ekho Moskvy and personally me as editor-in-chief.”
President Vladimir Putin is moving to control dissonant voices at home as Russians fume about the criticism of Sochi Olympics in global media. The Russian leader, who won a third term in 2012 after facing the biggest protests of his now 14-year rule, is tightening the reins on independent media, having brought the main national television channels under state control during his first term.
The overhaul at Ekho Moskvy, founded in the dying days of communism, follows the threat of closing for independent television channel Dozhd and the dissolution of state news service RIA Novosti.
Dozhd, which has given airtime to anti-Putin punk rockers Pussy Riot and opposition leader Alexey Navalny, came under fire after a poll on its website last month asked whether Soviet dictator Josef Stalin should have surrendered Leningrad to end a Nazi blockade. Amid outrage by veterans’ associations and pro-government lawmakers, the biggest cable operators said they would drop the channel, cutting its audience to about 2 million from almost 18 million.
Now Ekho Moskvy is feeling the heat through Gazprom Media, a unit of state-run OAO Gazprom, its majority owner since 2001 and the biggest media company in Russia. Its CEO was replaced by the Gazprom Media candidate against the wishes of editorial workers itself, Venediktov said.
While journalists, who own 34 percent of voting shares, have preserved control over editorial policy even under state ownership, that will change if Gazprom Media gets its way, Venediktov said. Ekho Moskvy, whose daily broadcasts reach 3.8 million people with a potential audience of about 46 million, regularly interviews opposition politicians and others with limited access to state-run television.
“The state wants to reduce citizens’ access to information,” Venediktov said by phone before today’s shareholder meeting to elect a new CEO.“We’ve come under criticism, including from the president. That’s normal, but this criticism shouldn’t be seen as a green light for officials to silence us.”
Gazprom Media didn’t respond to requests by e-mail and telephone for comment on Venediktov’s assertion that the new CEO will undermine Ekho Moskvy’s editorial independence.
The radio station drew the ire of Dmitry Kiselyov, a state TV presenter and the new head of a media holding that took over RIA Novosti in December.
Kiselyov lashed out at a controversial commentary by Ekho Moskvy journalist Viktor Shenderovich that compared the Sochi Winter Games to the 1936 Berlin Olympics hosted by Hitler as a similar propaganda exercise.
Ekho Moskvy “makes liberalism so unattractive that it literally scares people off,” he said. Venediktov in a blog post refused to apologize, saying the radio station doesn’t exercise self-censorship.
For Internet outlets, the pressure is at times even more direct.
Pavel Durov, the founder of Russia’s largest social network site, refused authorities’ demands to shut down an opposition blog used by organizers of the anti-Putin demonstrations. VKontakte, which has about 95 million users, is now owned by investors after Durov and his original partners sold their stakes.
Ivan Tavrin, who bought Durov’s 12 percent stake in Vkontakte last month to go with billionaire Alisher Usmanov’s 40 percent holding, said he was driven by the company’s “leading position in the market” and its “business potential.” Durov, who remains as CEO, didn’t respond to a request for comment via Facebook Inc.
Those types of considerations are slipping away from Dozhd founder Alexander Vinokurov, who personally invested millions of dollars in the channel and was expecting it to turn a profit by next year. The day Tricolor, Russia’s largest cable company, switched off the signal, he had difficulty putting on a brave face at the channel’s ultra-modern studio in a former chocolate factory.
“We’ve lost the majority of our TV audience,” Vinokurov, 43, dressed in blue jeans and a beige cardigan, said in an interview Feb. 10, adding that Dozhd will have to cut 90 percent of its staff and stop live programming. “We’ve basically been cut off from our main source of livelihood.”
Cable operators were reluctant to end the programming and in private most said they had been ordered to do so, Vinokurov said, adding that the order had come from the Russian authorities “at a very high level.”
Cable providers Tricolor and Akado declined to comment. Beeline now offers customers free subscription to three additional channels instead of Dozhd, VimpelCom Ltd. spokesman Artem Minaev said by e-mail.
“We may have been considered dangerous because you couldn’t summon our editor-in-chief to a morning meeting and tell us what to show and what not to show,” said Vinokurov.
Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, who in a Jan. 29 interview with Dozhd said the Leningrad poll “overstepped all the boundaries” of ethical standards, denied any government interference. “I don’t know anything about this,”Peskov said by phone Feb. 13.
Some Putin advisers see it differently. His human rights council in a Feb. 13 statement on its website accused the authorities of using behind-the-scenes maneuvering to “effectively destroy the TV channel.”
Russia was ranked 148 out of 180 on the 2014 worldwide ranking of media freedom by Paris-based Reporters Without Borders, released Feb. 12.
The campaign against independent media is bad for Russia’s efforts to attract investment and reverse $420 billion of capital outflows since 2008, says Vadim Bit-Avragim, who helps oversee about $4.2 billion at Kapital Asset Management LLP in Moscow.
“This is a blow to to the investor perception of Russia,” Bit-Avragim said by phone. “The main damage will be done to investments because they’re sensitive to such things as this is a reflection of the extent of the freedom of the market economy and of the nation’s institutions.”