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Row over Echo of Moscow radio station stirs Russian society

February 15, 2012, 18:01 UTC+3 Alexandrova Lyudmila

MOSCOW, February 15 (Itar-Tass) —— The decision made by the holding company Gazprom-media – the main shareholder of Echo of Moscow – a popular radio station strongly critical of the authorities - to replace the broadcaster’s board of directors, and the walkout of the editor-in-chief, Alexei Venediktov, caused a turbulent response from the Russian society. Although the representatives of Gazprom’s subsidiary responsible for running media assets explain that this step is aimed exclusively at optimizing economic activity and also promise that the editorial policies of the radio station will not be affected, many politicians and journalists do not believe them and suspect there is some intrigue by the authorities involved. Alexei Venediktov expressed the certainty that neither the president nor the prime minister have a bearing on this, and promised that he would not quit the position of the editor-in-chief. “I will die in the office,” he said.

On Wednesday Venediktov himself broke the news that the holding Gazprom-media, controlling 66.7 percent of the radio station’s shares, demanded an early resignation of Echo of Moscow's board of directors and the replacement of its independent directors – Alexander Makovsky, deputy chairman of the council of the private law research center under the president, and economist Yevgeny Yasin. Venediktov added that he and his first deputy, Vladimir Varfolomeyev, were quitting the council on their own accord in retaliation.

The personnel row at the radio station flared up on the New Year’s Eve. Back on December 30 Gazprom media demanded calling a meeting of the shareholders and disbanding the board of directors ahead of time and electing a new one. The negotiations lasted for six weeks. Last Wednesday Gazprom-media demanded the early resignation of the board of directors, although the regular meeting on that issue was to take place in June.

Gazprom-media’s representative, Irina Zenkova, claims that the procedure of replacing the board of directors is a “rather standard corporate procedure.” However, Venediktov pointed to what looked to him as a political background of the affair and the anger of some officials. Venediktov recalled that in January the radio station came under public criticism from Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev.

On Tuesday the press-secretaries of the president and the prime minster  emphatically dismissed any role of the top officials in the events over the Echo of Moscow radio station. Venediktov himself agreed with that in an interview to Komsomolskaya Pravda.

The reshuffles in the board of directors, in his opinion, were due to a combination of several factors. “I certainly include in this pressures on Gazprom-media,” he told the daily. “The angry reaction of the country’s leadership over the Ekho Moskvy’s editorial policies was shown on television to the whole world. But I would like to confirm, and I know for certain, that neither Medvedev’s team nor Putin’s team have issued any orders to crack down on Ekho Moskvy, to terminate its operation, to disband the editorial board and to dismiss yours truly. Apparently, some senior officials have interpreted the criticism as a command to hit really hard.”

Kommersant quotes experts as saying several factors have overlapped: Gazprom- media’s wish to have greater control of a radio station, certain annoyance at the top over the stance of Ekho Moskvy and Venediktov in person, and also intrigues over Gazprom-media itself.

Venediktov’s contract as the editor-in-chief will stay effective for another two years. “I would like to say that in 2014 I am going to run for the post of Ekho Moskvy’s editor-in-chief again,” he said. “I do not see any reasons for changing Ekho Moskvy’s personnel policies.”

The general director of Gazprom-media, Nikolai Senkevich, has said that he has no complaints against the radio station’s editor-in-chief. We have never raised “the question of removing Venediktov from the position of the editor-in-chief,” he said. Senkevich attributed the need for changing the board of directors to personnel rotation. Senior officials in the Kremlin, quoted by the daily Vedomosti, say that Gazprom-media has no plans for firing Venediktov. “Despite the hysterical yelling by the liberal public Venediktov is one of the few editors-in-chief who is invited to all of Putin’s media events. This is nothing but a form of support,” says a source close to the presidential staff. “Nobody has the intention of dismissing him.” Another source said that toward the end of the year personnel reshuffles in the large media are very unlikely.

Journalists and politicians see the main reason for the early dismissal of the board of directors in the editorial policies. The founder of the Yabloko party, Grigory Yavlinsky, has described the forthcoming changes “as a warning to the people of Russia what there will be after the presidential election.” One of the independent editors of Ekho Moskvy, Yevgeny Yasin, claims independent mass media are being put under control.

Former USSR President Mikhail Gorbachyov told Radio Liberty in an interview the reshuffles were “a slap in the face of public opinion.” “I am ashamed to see what is happening,” he said.

The editor-in-chief of Komsomolskaya Pravda, Vladimir Sungorkin, believes that this is an attempt to point to the place the editor-in-chief of Ekho Moskvy should stick to. His business is to act on instructions from the board of directors, and not indulge in speculations. Ekho Moskvy, in his opinion, is “a radio station of smart, talented people, but regrettably, obsessed for the past two years with the idea of ‘overthrowing an anti-popular regime’.”

“But the things that are happening these days are silly. In white-hot pre-election atmosphere such actions merely add votes to be cast for the opposition.”

The chairman of the tolerance and freedom of speech commission of the Public Chamber, Nikolai Svanidze, believes that the row is connected with the elections. “Many years ago Ekho Moskvy was to the liking of the country’s leadership and Putin personally. It was a safety valve that let steam out. There was freedom of speech, though the West claims we have none. Now the situation in the country has worsened and question number one the authorities are asking is ‘Are you with us or against us?’” Apparently, Ekho Moskvy is seen as the headquarters of the Opposition.”

The representatives of human rights organizations adhere to the same opinion. “Ekho Moskvy is the sole and probably last major radio station that offers an opportunity for spreading the vastest spectrum of opinions and comments,” the director of the Moscow office for Human Rights, Alexander Brod said. “Some things about Ekho Moskvy may be not to some people’s liking, but this is an authoritative place for a dialogue, discussions and heated debates. We are perfectly aware what is behind the replacement of the radio station’s board of directors. What for all this is being done. There is a great risk the editorial policy may undergo cleansing.”

Big business tycoon and presidential candidate Mikhail Prokhorov has made a decision to support the radio station’s staff with financial resources to help them protect their independence. “I am offering to the editorial personnel of Ekho Moskvy my assistance in obtaining a loan on favorable terms for buying out the radio station from Gazprom-media,” Prokhorov said in a statement.

In the meantime, Venediktov has been unexpectedly summoned to the prosecutor-general’s office, says the network periodical “I must be there tomorrow to present explanations regarding a complaint filed by a man from Tambov over what he says is discrepancy between the radio station’s charter and the Labor Code,” Venediktov wrote in Twitter. “Where has that man in Tambov been able to read our Charter?” Venediktov wonders.

Kommersant’s source in the media holding company claims that ousting Venediktov in the current situation is practically impossible. For that amendments are to be made to the charter first. That will require a 75-percent majority vote at a general meeting of shareholders. Gazprom-media, which controls 66 percent, will need support from the radio station’s personnel. The journalists own 34 percent of the voting shares.