Putin Slams Radio Station for Reporting on Georgian War

Aleksei Venediktov.  Source: KommersantRussian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is apparently seething at one of Russia’s only independent radio stations over its reporting of the war in Georgia. David Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker, reports in the magazine that Putin personally called out Aleksei Venediktov, the editor-in-chief of Ekho Moskvy, at an August meeting with Russia’s leading media figures. Responding to Putin’s criticism, Venediktov was eventually forced to change the station’s editorial policy.

The meeting in question took place on August 29th at Putin’s residence in Sochi, where 35 media heads gathered to speak with the prime minister. Remnick reminds readers that Putin regularly held these types of gatherings during his presidency.

According to an account from the Washington Post, Putin spent several minutes berating Venediktov in front of the group, reading excerpts of what he found wrong in Ekho Moskvy transcripts. “I’m not interested in who said these things,” one participant recalled Putin telling Venediktov. “You are responsible for everything that goes on at the radio station. I don’t know who they are, but I know who you are.”

Afterwards, Venediktov approached Putin in the hallway and told him he was being “unjust.” Putin responded by pulling up a handful of transcripts and reportedly saying “You have to answer for this, Aleksei Alekseevich!”

Remnick writes that the editor was concerned, but “calculated that Putin would never have invited him to Sochi with the rest of the delegation had he intended to get rid of him or Echo of Moscow. That could have been accomplished with a telephone call.”

“Afterward, we met one on one, and there Putin’s tone was more positive,” Venediktov told Remnick. “But he made his point. He was demonstrating his ability to do whatever he wants with us at any time.”

Having returned to Moscow, Venediktov told the station’s staff that they should “pay careful attention” to how they report on events, checking their facts and making sure to air enough government views.

The day after the meeting in Sochi, Venediktov announced that Ekho Moskvy would not be inviting Valeriya Novodvorskaya, a dissident politician, to appear on air for the rest of the year. The politician had made remarks which seemed to “sing the praises” of Shamil Basayev, a Chechen warlord who claimed responsibility for the 2004 Beslan school siege. Venediktov also gave orders to remove all transcripts and audio recordings of Novodvorskaya’s appearance on the station. The politician, in turn, assessed the move as “slanderous accusations of a criminal offense (that is, publicly justifying terrorism).”

Ekho Moskvy is primarily host to serious news and talk radio, including social commentary and political discussion. The station is often the first source for interviews with prominent opposition politicians, and is widely seen as the only independent news broadcast with a national reach in Russia. A running joke is that media figures exiled from state-controlled television and newspapers subservient to the government eventually end up as co-hosts. The station broadcasts out of Moscow and reaches around 2.5 million people across Russia through partnerships with local stations. Its broadcast is also heard in other countries of the former Soviet Union.

Still, Gazprom, Russia’s natural gas monopoly, remains as a majority shareholder in the station. While journalists and anchors on the station have worked to maintain integrity and independence, Venediktov himself calls the Kremlin “our main shareholder.”

The whim of the Russian authorities, then, and Putin himself is all that keeps Ekho Moskvy from going permanently silent.

Background reading

Aleksei Venediktov, interviewed in the Izvestia newspaper on September 3rd. (excerpt)

All of us understand that the bloody conflict was unleashed by Saakashvili. The shelling and murder of peaceful residents is not a topic for discussion. But the rest can be given consideration. During the conflict, we sought an interview with Russian Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov and Georgian Foreign Minister Eka Tkeshelashvili. We did not receive one neither here nor there. So what did we do? We took an 8 minute interview from EuroNews with one representative of authority, took the same from another [from the other side], combined this and sent it out on the air. And after [we ran] an interview with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, our radio station was shut down in Tbilisi. Why? It is unclear. It must be said that this is entirely characteristic of weak rulers who are hiding the truth from their people.

…“Ekho Moskvy” is a platform for discussion, where different points of view must be heard. And I only welcome the word “biased.” Who needs a commentator who doesn’t have their own point of view? We have different ones here –from Yevgenia Albats and Yulia Latynina to Maxim Shevchenko and Aleksandr Prokhanov.

In my opinion, one must speak about risks, about potential ambushes, and not to operate like the American Fox channel, which always supported the Republican administration in the war in Iraq. But in that same America there’s the NBC channel, which gives a different point of view, and which was even called Vladimir Putin’s “fifth column” in the US by a Fox commentator. There is a platform for discussion. If discussion is happening in the country and different arguments are sounding, it allows the right decisions to be made with fewer mistakes. Nevertheless, Valeriya Novodvorskaya has been entered into Ekho’s “stop list” for her statements about Shamil Basayev.

translation by theotherrussia.org